New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy just signed three bills that will officially put an end to decades of cannabis prohibition.
The first of these historic bills officially legalizes the production, sale, and personal use of cannabis. Under this law, adults will be able to purchase up to one ounce of weed from licensed retailers. Legal sales will be subject to the state's standard sales tax of 6.625 percent, and individual towns can add up to 2 percent more in local taxes. Seventy percent of this revenue will be used to fund reinvestment in marginalized communities.
Left as is, however, the new law would have still given cops the ability to bust people for possessing more than an ounce of weed. To resolve this issue, lawmakers passed a second bill that decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces of weed. This new law also directs state courts to automatically expunge the criminal records of non-violent minor weed offenders and prevents cops from using cannabis odor as an excuse to conduct searches.
Although two-thirds of Garden State voters approved the ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis last fall, lawmakers needed to create a companion bill that would establish regulations for this new industry before that measure could take effect. Although legislators were hoping to get this bill off the ground shortly after the election, debates over tax issues delayed that vote until last December.
Governor Murphy has been pushing for legal weed ever since he took office, so it came as a surprise when he vetoed the regulation bill, arguing that it needed to impose stricter penalties on underage cannabis use. Lawmakers began debating a revision to the bill, but by last week, seemed ready to give up on the process.
While this political stalemate played out, cannabis remained illegal, and cops continued to enforce these antiquated laws. In the three months since the state voted to legalize weed, over 6,000 people were arrested for minor non-violent pot possession. Finally, as the deadline for these laws to pass drew near, lawmakers approved a third bill to address the governor's concerns.
“No one is happy, and nothing is perfect. And let’s not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), lead sponsor of the cannabis legislation, according to POLITICO. “This is a topic that needs to be put behind us.”
The governor asked lawmakers to impose fines for underage pot use, but those fines would have contradicted the decriminalization bill. Lawmakers finally passed a compromise bill that creates a series of written warnings for juveniles who are busted with weed. On the third warning, juvenile offenders could be sentenced to community service, but cops can be punished if they continue harassing teens for pot possession. The law also prohibits police from using the odor of cannabis as a justification for conducting juvenile searches.
With that third measure in place, Governor Murphy finally signed off on the bills, just minutes before the legislative deadline ran out. The bills take immediate effect, so Jersey cops are no longer able to arrest anyone for possessing up to six ounces of pot. Existing medical marijuana businesses in the state will be allowed to apply for adult-use retail licenses, which could allow them to begin selling recreational pot within six months.
“The enactment of these laws is long overdue,” said NORML State Policies Manager Carly Wolf in a statement. “Now, going forward, tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding New Jerseyans will no longer be subject to arrest and a criminal record for their personal use of marijuana, and the commercial market will be regulated in a fair and inclusive manner.”
“There isn't anyone who has supported these efforts who wouldn't acknowledge this process has taken much longer than anticipated, but certainly it is better to get things done right rather than fast,” Murphy said during a press briefing, POLITICO reports. “This process may have had its fits and starts, but it is ending in the right place.”