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Marijuana cleanup heads to Murphy’s desk

By Nikita Biryukov, February 22 2021 11:40 am

Lawmakers sent a marijuana cleanup bill to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk Monday, ending a standoff over legalization that wore on for roughly three-and-a-half months after voters overwhelmingly backed the policy at the polls in November.

“This is momentous day,” said State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), the Senate’s top legalization backer.

Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill, which expands penalties for underage marijuana users, and legalization and decriminalization bills already on his desk.

The measure, which cleared the Senate in a 22-9 vote, 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.

Records of those warnings must be destroyed after two years or when the individual reaches their 21st year.

Republicans in both chambers opposed the bill over fears the relatively lax penalties would enable underage use.

“This message this bill says its purpose is to do whatever you want to do in this state and there’s no consequences for your actions, and I’ll tell you, I think this is absolutely a crime,” State Sen. Bob Singer (R-Lakewood) said.

The Assembly voted in favor of the measure by a margin of 49-27. Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City) abstained.

Previous versions of the bill levied fines of up to $50 on users aged 18, 19 and 20 found in possession of Marijuana.

The bill requires police have their body cameras enabled during interactions and mandates those records be reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office, which must submit a report to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the state body tasked with administrating the state’s legal marijuana market.

It raises criminal liability for police officers who conduct illegal searches related to marijuana by removing a requirement that such a search be made on the basis of an individual’s protected class — their race, religion or age, for example. The bill would bar the odor of marijuana as cause for a search.

The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association opposed both those measures.

“This language is anti-police rhetoric at its worst and its consequences will be real,” the union said in a statement. “Underage users of marijuana will be free to smoke it anywhere, including in places the bill says is illegal, because merely stopping a person to enforce the law is now illegal for police.”

Still, those provisions weren’t enough to satisfy some members of the Legislative Black Caucus. State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), a legalization opponent who chairs the LBC, proposed an amendment from the chamber’s floor to add a marijuana exception to qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement officials from civil liability related to constitutional rights violations.

Senate lawmakers did not advance that amendment, striking it down 26-8. All five of the chamber’s Black members and all three of its Latina members voted to move it forward but were met with bipartisan opposition.

Other Black lawmakers celebrated the bill’s passage, seeing it as a social justice victory.

“The voters of New Jersey have resoundingly voiced their support for recreational marijuana, which is projected to generate millions of dollars in new revenue for state coffers,” Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle) said. “I am pleased that my colleagues have recognized the critical component of social justice in these bills, ensuring that juveniles in our most struggling communities are no longer unfairly targeted with arrest and prosecution. I look forward to the swift enactment of this legislation that New Jersey has been waiting months to see happen.”

The measure would also bar municipalities from instituting their own civil penalties for marijuana offenses.

For months, marijuana legalization stalled as Murphy and Senate lawmakers failed to bridge an impasse over youth penalties for marijuana use.

The legalization and decriminalization bills sent to the governor’s desk on Dec. 17 made underage possession of marijuana purchased on the state’s legal market a petty disorderly persons offense but provided no sanctions for possession of black-market marijuana.

Murphy, who campaigned on legalization, said repeatedly he would not sign a bill that legalized marijuana for children. Black and Latina legislators in the Senate feared harsher penalties would perpetuate unequal enforcement of marijuana laws that has, for decades, effected disproportionate harm on communities of color.

The impasse wore on for months even as it upended business in the Assembly, which twice delayed quorums to give more time for slow-moving negotiations, first cancelling a Feb. 8 quorum call, then a Feb. 19 session.

The delays in the Assembly — and the Senate, to a lesser degree — incensed lawmakers whose time was increasingly consumed by a single piece of legislation.

With quorums cancelled, lawmakers in the lower house could no longer introduce new bills, and numerous committee meetings in the chamber were scrubbed, their agendas empty.

In New Jersey, bills that sit on the governor’s desk for 45 days, as the legalization and decriminalization bills have, become law when the chamber they originated in next meets for a quorum.

The delays threatened political fallout as every lawmaker elected at the state level prepares to move into re-election.

Some Republicans have already launched attacks over Murphy’s concern, charging it effectively legalized underage use.

“It is a sad day for parents and police,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville). “Democrats have sacrificed the safety of children under the guise of social justice. How on earth can anyone justify making it virtually legal for kids to possess and use drugs and alcohol underage, while simultaneously making our cops criminals for trying to stop them. We are worse off today than we were yesterday, and I fear for the future of our children.”

Murphy threatened to veto the bills on his desk absent youth penalties, a move Senate President Steve Sweeney said would take marijuana talks back to the drawing board, a place where they could have remained for months as legislators’ attention turned to the budget.

With roughly two-thirds of New Jersey voters supporting legalization, such a delay could have had a significant impact as Murphy advances his campaign for a second term.

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