Murphy signs N.J. legal weed bills, ending 3-year saga

EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is hosting a two-day business and networking conference March 9-10, featuring some of the state’s most prominent industry leaders. Tickets are limited.

More than three years after he took office with hopes of legalizing marijuana in 100 days, Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills that together launch a marijuana industry in New Jersey and put an end to thousands of arrests.

But it took more than a marijuana-friendly governor to make reform a reality. There were years of failed legislative attempts, a ballot question that garnered more than 2.7 million votes in favor and three months of negotiations on tax revenue, licensing rules and the ultimate hangup that nearly killed the effort: penalties for those under 21 caught with marijuana.

Murphy signed the bills Monday morning without the usual fanfare, putting his pen to paper just before the deadline to take action struck. If he had done nothing, two measures seeking to launch a legal marijuana industry and to end arrests would have become law without his signature.

“As of this moment, New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, and which disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise — are no more,” he said Monday afternoon during his briefing on the coronavirus in Trenton.

The governor signed the bills after both the Senate and Assembly held last-minute voting sessions Monday morning to pass a third bill establishing civil penalties for those under 21 caught with marijuana. Protracted debate drew the voting sessions out, and the bill passed both chambers with only 20 minutes left for Murphy to act on the first two measures.

The legalization and decriminalization bills languished on Murphy’s desk for more than two months awaiting the proposal. The governor said he would not sign them until lawmakers made penalties clear, but refused to issue a conditional veto calling for the change.

As the bills awaited action in 2021, police issued more than 2,000 charges for minor marijuana possession.

And a few plans developed and collapsed In that time. Lawmakers extended the deadline for Murphy to sign the bills by more than two weeks and the lengthy, sometimes tense, negotiations continued.

They finally proved fruitful Monday morning.

Murphy acknowledged Monday that the legalization effort took longer than expected.

“This process may have had its fits and starts, but it is ending in the right place. And, I firmly believe, this process has ended in laws that will serve as a national model,” he said.

Legalization advocates celebrated the long-awaited news.

“This is a new beginning — and the culmination of years of advocacy — and we must keep in mind that it is only the start,” Amol Sinha, executive director for the ACLU of New Jersey, said in a statement. “Signing these laws puts in motion the next phase of this effort: to work relentlessly to transform the principles of legalization into greater racial and social justice in New Jersey.”

Those looking to legally buy marijuana in New Jersey will have to keep waiting. The state will need to license new dispensaries to meet the public need.

New Jersey has 13 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state, and current companies expect to open more this spring. But they have struggled so far to supply enough marijuana for the state’s 100,000 registered patients, and must certify they can meet that need before opening their doors to the public.

Experts had estimated sales could begin in late 2021, but those guesses came before the debate on underage penalties drew out the legislative process for two additional months.

Murphy said the legal marijuana marketplace would begin forming in the coming months. He will still have to fully seat the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee the marijuana industry, which has six months to set up its rules and regulations before it seeks new licensees for businesses.

While marijuana consumers will not have legal avenues to purchase it yet, arrests for thousands of possession cases should begin to cease.

“And, starting immediately, those who had been subject to an arrest for petty marijuana possession — an arrest that may have kept them from a job or the opportunity to further their education — will be able to get relief and move forward,” Murphy said.

The decriminalization law allows people to possess up to six ounces of marijuana without legal consequence. But the new law on underage penalties for using marijuana also bars police from stopping young people if they smell marijuana, and allows them to only give out warnings to young people.

If they knowingly break that law and wrongfully detain someone, they can be charged with deprivation of civil rights.

“This language is anti-police rhetoric at its worst and its consequences will be real,” the state Policemen’s Benevolent Association 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.”

Monday’s signing closes a long, tumultuous chapter in the efforts to bring legal marijuana to New Jersey, but opens the next that will require the work of many to make it a reality.

“We can get down to the business of establishing a responsible, sustainable, profitable and diverse adult-use and expanded medical cannabis market in New Jersey,” Edmund DeVeaux, head of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said in a statement.

“Now the real work can begin.”

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Amanda Hoover may be reached at ahoover@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj.

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