New Jersey lawmakers appear to have found a compromise on penalties for underage possession of cannabis that’s acceptable to Gov. Phil Murphy. That means a marijuana legalization bill could finally be enacted into law in the Garden State almost four months after voters approved a ballot measure to legalize cannabis, while six thousand people have been arrested for marijuana possession in the interim.
New Jersey lawmakers passed enabling legislation to establish a legal cannabis market following the Election Day vote but Gov. Murphy refused to sign it into law citing concerns at the lack of civil penalties for minors found in possession of marijuana. Lawmakers tried to remedy this by reintroducing a bill that would impose a fine of $250 for people between the ages of 18 and 20 in possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, while possession of between one and six ounces would incur a $500 fine. Individuals under 18 in possession of marijuana would be referred to a juvenile justice court instead of receiving a fine. However, key legislators withdrew their support over concerns the bill would undermine efforts at mitigating racial disparities in the enforcement of New Jersey’s marijuana laws.
The new “cleanup bill”, introduced by Sens. Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Nick Scutari, may have found a compromise acceptable to a majority of lawmakers as well as the governor. It would establish a $50 fine for possession of up to one ounce for those aged between 18 and 20 and a $100 fine for larger amounts, while those under 18 would be given a warning that would escalate upon repeat offenses rather than immediately imposing a civil penalty. The bill contains other provisions aimed at protecting young marijuana users from law enforcement interventions such as forbidding the scent of cannabis as probable cause to conduct a search and requiring police officers to turn on their body cameras before apprehending a suspect. The bill would also establish a 26-person task force charged with reviewing underage cannabis consumption and police interactions with underage users.
“It’s my understanding we have broad agreement,” Scutari said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It may not be unanimous, but we have a majority. I think the governor will sign this simultaneously along with the other two bills that will create the cannabis industry and stop arrests.”
The compromise bill also has the backing of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU which heralded the task force’s creation as laying “the groundwork for future reforms, providing a clearer look into how enforcement is carried out in practice. If racial disparities persist—we’ll know.”
But time is not on Gov. Phil Murphy’s side. Under an agreed-upon deadline between the governor and the Legislature, the compromise bill would have to clear the New Jersey Assembly and Senate by Thursday 18 February before Murphy could sign it into law. And before that can happen the bill must be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee which is scheduled to meet early this week.