New Jersey Deal To Legalize Marijuana Falls Apart

A legislative deal to implement a ballot measure to legalize recreational cannabis in New Jersey has apparently fallen apart over Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s insistence on civil penalties for underage people caught with marijuana. Voters in the Garden State approved the measure in the November general election with more than 67% of ballots cast.

The ballot measure, however, left the details of marijuana legalization up to the state legislature. After the state Senate and General Assembly passed separate bills to implement the measure, Murphy’s office proposed a “cleanup bill” to address discrepancies in the bills from lawmakers.

Only two days before marijuana legalization was to become effective on New Year’s Day, Murphy said that he was working to resolve a “technical but important issue.” The governor then added provisions to impose civil fines for underage possession of marijuana to the legislation to a “cleanup bill” that addressed discrepancies between the two measures. Under the governor’s cleanup bill, persons under the age of 21 caught with up to one ounce of marijuana would be subject to a civil fine of $250, while possession of one to six ounces would carry a fine of up to $500. 

Last week, it appeared that Murphy and legislative leaders had come to a compromise over civil penalties for underage persons caught with cannabis. But the deal was abandoned on Friday when some lawmakers decided that the penalties for possession by young people were still too harsh. An Assembly vote on the cleanup bill that was slated for Monday has been pulled from the schedule.

“In the 11th hour, the governor has proposed legislation that will disproportionately and unfairly hurt communities of color,” Democratic state Assemblyman Jamel Holley, who sponsored the legalization bill, said in a statement. “The governor can’t hold legislation hostage in an effort to further target over-policed communities and place a de facto tax on poor people whose children may suffer from drug abuse and addiction. This proposal is regressive, draconian, and ethically perverse.”

Back To The Drawing Board

On Monday, Murphy said in a news conference that he is “still optimistic we’re going to figure something out” on legalizing marijuana but he also noted that “we’ve got to somehow thread the needle” to satisfy the concerns of all parties.

The governor said that he does not want “more kids getting tangled up in the criminal justice system. None of us want that. Period.”

But Murphy appeared to hold firm on including some way to dissuade young people from using cannabis.

“This was never about legalizing marijuana for our kids,” he said.

“That was never what this was about,” the governor added. “That’s not what the voters voted on in the referendum. That’s not what we’ve felt strongly and passionate about.”

The New Jersey Senate also canceled a vote on the cleanup bill, leaving Murphy the option of either vetoing the bill or signing it into law as it stands, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Nicholas Scutari, who withdrew his sponsorship of the compromise measure.

“We’re satisfied with the bill that we gave them, and we want them to take action on that bill,” he said.

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