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Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson). (Photo: Via Facebook)

Lawmakers edge toward marijuana deal despite week’s negotiation standstill

Language changes barring odor as cause for underage searches could save cleanup bill

By Nikita Biryukov, January 22 2021 5:10 pm

Continuing negotiations over marijuana legalization were largely kept in stasis this week but there’s still been some progress, one of the bills’ sponsors told the New Jersey Globe.

“Negotiations are kind of at a standstill,” said Assemblyman Benji Wimberly (D-Paterson).

Though legislators soundly sent legalization and decriminalization bills to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk last month, the governor has yet to sign it, concerned over a lack of penalties for underage use.

The two camps reached an agreement on a cleanup bill that would limit youth enforcement to curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments — essentially talks with police officers — but that measure died when Senate sponsors pulled their support after members of the Legislative Black Caucus warned the bill would negatively impact youths in Black and Brown communities.

It’s not clear whether lawmakers have changed their view on those penalties

“I can’t answer that. We haven’t had any conversation this week about it at all, with the Legislative Black Caucus, any officials,” said Wimberly, who is the first prime sponsor of the decriminalization bill and a prime sponsor on the legalization bill.

But other alterations may reduce resistance among lawmakers, namely language changes that specifically bar police from searching minors after smelling marijuana.

“There was an issue concerning stop and frisk,” Wimberly said. “But I think that was addressed with smell is not probably cause to search a minor in particular.”

Though both bills included provisions that barred marijuana odor as a source of probable cause for searches, none of those provisions applied directly to underage smokers, and the bill included carveouts for marijuana smells detected on school grounds.

The movement will be welcome news among proponents of legalization, though it might be even more welcome in the front office.

Lawmakers sent the legalization and decriminalization bills to Murphy’s desk on Dec. 17. Under New Jersey law, Murphy has 45 days to sign or veto bills once they’re transmitted to him. If he does neither, the bill automatically becomes law when the chamber it was introduced in has its next quorum call.

In this case, that date’s Feb. 8, when the Assembly has its next quorum call, though that deadline can be moved to as early as Feb. 1 if Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin schedules an earlier quorum.

Murphy on Tuesday said talks on marijuana had been productive, and Wimberly sees the agreement over odor as a promising sign.

“I can’t speak for the governor, but I’m positive that we’re moving in the right direction with the concerns that have been addressed,” he said.

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