Home>Feature>Murphy signs legalization, decriminalization, cleanup bills

Gov. Phil Murphy.(Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy signs legalization, decriminalization, cleanup bills

By Nikita Biryukov, February 22 2021 1:12 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law legalization and decriminalization bills that have sat on his desk since Dec. 17 after both chambers of the legislature approved a cleanup bill that altered penalties for underage use, which he also signed Monday.

“Our current marijuana prohibition laws have failed every test of social justice, which is why for years I’ve strongly supported the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey each year for low-level drug offenses is unjust and indefensible.”

The move immediately decriminalizes possession of less than six ounces of marijuana, but true legalization won’t come for another 180 days as the state sets up its legal market.

Murphy and legislators in the Senate for months stood at an impasse over underage penalties.

While the legalization bill made youth possession of marijuana purchased on the legal market a petty disorderly persons offense, the decriminalization bill provided no penalties for possession marijuana purchased on the black market.

The cleanup measure subjects all underage users to a graduated system of written warnings that would see users’ parents notified on a second offense and see them referred to community-based treatment or counseling groups on the third violation. Underage alcohol offenses would be subject to those same penalties.

“Although this process has taken longer than anticipated, I believe it is ending in the right place and will ultimately serve as a national model,” the governor said.

The standstill threatened political fallout over one of the governor’s chief 2017 campaign promises just as he moved into his re-election campaign.

It’s still likely to play a part in this year’s gubernatorial race, despite legalization winning overwhelming support at the polls last November.

“Raising children these days is hard enough without politicians making it even harder,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli said on Twitter. “Today’s decision by Trenton Democrats to prohibit police officers from even asking questions to a car full of underage kids who appear to be smoking weed is outrageous.”

The cleanup bill, which cleared the Senate in a 22-9 vote with some opposition from democratic lawmakers, including Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Ron Rice (D-Newark) who voted against the bill because it did not eliminate qualified immunity related to marijuana offenses, lowers the bar to criminally charge police who illegally search minors for marijuana by removing a requirement that the search be predicated on an individual’s protected class, like race, religion or age, among others.

The measure also bars local governments from enacting their own civil penalties for marijuana offenses and requires the state Attorney General review police body camera footage from marijuana incidents including underage users.

Its passage, along with Murphy’s actions on the legalization and decriminalization bills, was met with celebration from the state’s marijuana community.

“It took us a long time to get here, but thankfully, finally we can move forward,” said New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Edmund DeVeaux. “We can stop the senseless arrests for possession and use of a product that should have never been criminalized in the first place, and the voters approved over three months ago.”

The standstill upended other legislative business as the Assembly was forced to cancel a Feb. 8 quorum and a Feb. 17 voting session that would have made the legalization and decriminalization bills law without Murphy’s signature. Those postponements prevented lawmakers in the lower chamber from introducing new legislation and effectively cancelled a slew of committee meetings on unrelated legislation over the past two weeks.

Marijuana arrests continued in the interim, despite guidance from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that directed prosecutors to halt all cases solely involving marijuana charges, but those will stop now that marijuana use is decriminalized.

“This will usher in a new era of social justice by doing away with the failed policy that criminalized the use of marijuana,” said State Sen. Scutari (D-Union), who has sought legalization for more than a decade. “Too many people have been arrested, incarcerated and left with criminal records that disrupt and even destroy their lives. We don’t want the criminal justice system to be an unfair barrier to success.”

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