When New Jersey voters resoundingly approved an Election Day ballot proposal to legalize adult-use marijuana, they did so on the understanding the constitutional amendment would take effect on January 1, 2021.
That hasn’t happened.
In the two months since the vote to legalize, New Jersey lawmakers have been unable to pass legislation to put the measure into effect. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s cannabis prohibition laws technically remain in force. The only thing standing between a New Jersey marijuana user and their arrest by law enforcement is a request to police officers by the state attorney general not to apprehend anyone on the basis of low-level cannabis possession. Under this moratorium, state prosecutors cannot convict anyone for low-level cannabis possession, but a New Jersey cop would nonetheless be acting within their legal authority if they chose to arrest someone for such an offense. The attorney general’s moratorium expires on January 25.
“There are no implementing laws and there are no regulations by the new commission that’s being created,” said Robert Williams, a retired constitutional law professor at Rutgers Law School. “It’s an odd situation, actually, that the people can vote for something and literally the Legislature can block it by doing nothing.”
The ballot question itself contained no clues as to what a legal marijuana landscape in New Jersey would look like. Questions on how much an adult could legally buy, where they could buy it and who could sell it were instead to be resolved through enabling legislation. And enabling legislation has proven difficult for lawmakers to agree on.
The first points of contention concerned a perceived lack of social equity provisions to ensure access to the legal industry for marginalized groups and that tax dollars raised by legal cannabis sales finds its way to communities most harmed by prohibition. Then some lawmakers questioned the cap on the number of marijuana cultivation licenses to be issued in the first two years, while others lamented the fact people wouldn’t be permitted to grow their own cannabis plants at home. Next, lawmakers debated whether employers could test their employees for marijuana.
The latest hold up among lawmakers working on marijuana legalization legislation concerns fines for underage users. Gov. Phil Murphy, who pledged to legalize cannabis within his first 100 days in office, has refused to sign two pieces of enabling legislation passed by lawmakers unless they include a provision that would levy a $250 fine on individuals 21 and younger found with one ounce or less of cannabis, in much the same way that underage drinkers are treated in New Jersey. For amounts between 1 and 6 ounces, this would rise to a $500 fine. Six ounces of marijuana is the maximum amount adults 21 and older can legally possess under the bill Murphy is yet to sign.
Critics of this move say it would undermine legalization efforts to minimize contact between law enforcement and marginalized young Black communities. Marijuana reform advocates further argue that the burden of marijuana possession should not simply be passed on to young people.
“Children should not be subject to criminal penalties for something that is decriminalized or legalized for adults,” said Amol Sinha, ACLU New Jersey Executive Director. “There are ways to disincentivize youth use without arresting kids and burdening them with criminal records.”
For now though, it’s not just underage people who could be stopped and penalized by police officers for possessing cannabis. Until enabling legislation is passed, adult-use marijuana in New Jersey is in more of a legal gray zone than ever. And it’s not altogether certain whether it’ll be resolved quickly.