Since mid-December, bills to legalize and decriminalize marijuana for all adults in New Jersey have awaited Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.
On Monday, Murphy finally signed them into law, making good on a campaign promise that he made more than three years ago.
“New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws are no more,” said Murphy, who ran for governor on a platform that included legalizing marijuana within his first 100 days in office. “We now have laws that will usher in a new industry based on equity; reinvest dollars into communities; and promote both public health and public safety.”
The new laws do three things. The first creates a regulated cannabis industry in the Garden State. The second decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana. The third removes low-level marijuana arrests from the records of as many as a quarter of a million people.
“It was a long and winding road, and took so many years,” said State Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Linden), cosponsor of the bills. “But for the citizens of New Jersey, it was worth it.”
Insiders say that, before the end of 2022, adults in New Jersey should be able buy marijuana as easily as they do in California or Colorado — or have it delivered directly to their homes.
Voters in the Garden State overwhelmingly approved a measure in November that created a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana for all adults. The state already has 13 medical marijuana dispensaries, which have had difficulty keeping up with demand.
After the referendum, the legislature drew up and approved the enabling legislation in December. But the bills became stalled on the governor’s desk. Murphy believed there weren’t strong enough penalties to discourage the use of cannabis by people under age 21.
A “cleanup” bill, introduced earlier this month by Scutari and State Sen. Nilsa Cruz Perez (D., Camden), provides for civil penalties of up to $50 — more lenient than a traffic ticket — for underage use. It also takes 15% of all taxes generated by legal weed sales and gives it to a task force to spend on underage prevention and deterrence.
The new laws forbid police from using the scent of marijuana as a reason to conduct a search. They also require police officers to activate their body cameras before investigating a suspected cannabis violation. A minor who is caught with cannabis may not be photographed or fingerprinted. Any records generated by a police encounter over a minor’s use of weed must be destroyed within two years. Police may no longer notify parents to alert them of their children’s first cannabis offense.
Penalties for possessing alcohol are being downgraded so that they are equivalent to possessing a joint.
“There are no surprises in these laws,” said State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), who backed provisions that will penalize police officers if they use overaggressive measures to arrest underage people for minor marijuana offenses. “Some people may disagree with some components of the laws, but there are no surprises.”
Singleton said he would like to have seen protections for employers included. “No bill is perfect. But as testing methods evolve, we’ll have a better understanding of people under the influence in their jobs. The regulations can only become enhanced as we get more experience with the legalized market in our state.”
Activists and civil rights groups celebrated the announcement.
“With Gov. Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Our state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like, with the removal of criminal charges for possession and an unprecedented portion of revenue dedicated to addressing the harms wrought by the drug war.”
It’s uncertain how soon arrests for possession will stop or when legal marijuana will be sold for adult recreational use.
“It’s a big day for New Jersey, but legal controlled cannabis is not available yet,” said Chris Goldstein, a spokesman for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There are several things that must happen first. At least we’ll finally see an end to prohibition. But justice won’t be realized until the arrests actually stop.”
At his news conference broadcast on Facebook on Monday, Murphy said that “the carefully regulated cannabis market” will create “an economic boon for our state.”
Industry analysts estimate that the market could create $2 billion in economic activity within five years.
“As our new cannabis marketplace begins to take shape, businesses will be formed, and jobs will be created,” Murphy said. “Starting immediately, those who had been subject to an arrest for petty marijuana possession will be able to get relief and move forward.”
Growing marijuana at home will remain illegal.
Next up, the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission must create rules and regulations to govern the new industry. Dianna Houenou will chair the five-member commission, which will oversee all businesses that produce and distribute legal marijuana in the Garden State. She was once a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and recently was counsel to Murphy. Her commission will have six months to establish regulations before businesses licenses can be sought.
The commission has its work cut out for it, said Bill Caruso, a lobbyist and head of the cannabis law practice at Archer Law.
“This is an experiment here,” Caruso said. “This is about changing the culture and bringing people together from across the spectrum. It’s a lesson going forward.
“We created some reform here and we’re optimistic. It will continue to improve as we go.”