A top New Jersey state Senator is giving up on efforts to reach a compromise with Governor Phil Murphy on a bill to regulate the state's new adult-use cannabis industry.
Last fall, the Garden State voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, but before legal sales can begin, the state legislature must pass a law to establish regulations for this new industry. Lawmakers were optimistic that they could pass this legislation within weeks of the ballot measure's approval, but talks quickly broke down over concerns about retail taxes, and the bill was temporarily tabled.
Lawmakers were able to resolve their differences by last December, and presented Governor Murphy with a finalized regulation bill. But Murphy, who was initially one of the state's strongest advocates of legalization, rejected the bill, arguing that it did not impose strict enough penalties on underage cannabis use. The bill returned to the state legislature, who began the process of revising it to meet the governor's requirements.
The revised bill would have imposed $50 fines for young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 who were busted with weed, and sent warnings to juveniles caught with pot. This revision was scheduled to come up for a vote this week, but state Senator Nicholas Scutari announced on Wednesday that he was putting an end to the negotiations.
At the end of last year, lawmakers passed a second weed reform bill and sent it to the governor's desk. This bill would decriminalize the possession of up to 6 ounces of weed, up from the one-ounce limit included in the voter-approved measure. Under this new bill, police would not be able to impose any penalty at all against a person caught with under 6 ounces of pot.
The decriminalization bill would effectively negate the fines on underage use imposed by the revised regulation bill, however. For this reason, Scutari advised that the governor should simply sign the two original bills that lawmakers handed him two months ago.
“Underage penalties, all of those issues are explained in the original bills,” said Scutari to NJ.com. “All avenues to clarify it any further are exhausted.”
Governor Murphy must take action on these bills by the end of this week. The governor can choose to sign the bills into law, veto them, or issue a conditional veto that would kick either bill back to the legislature for further revision. If the governor fails to take any action, the bills will become law without his signature.
The passage of these bills is especially critical because cops all around the state are continuing to arrest people for minor pot crimes in spite of legalization. Weed possession arrests in Newark have actually increased by 23 percent since the state voted to legalize weed, and statewide crime data shows that over 6,000 people have been busted for minor pot possession over the last three months.
“In the November election, a large majority of New Jerseyans demanded relief,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, sponsor of the legalization bill, to NJ.com. “Our Governor promised this would be done in his first 100 days, we are now in his fourth year. State lawmakers in the Senate are mandated to follow the will of the people. Today, they failed again.”
Although the fate of the state's adult-use industry continues to hang in the grey area, Gov. Murphy did at least sign a bill that reduces the criminal penalties for using or possessing psilocybin mushrooms. This new law reduces the penalty for shroom possession from a $15,000 fine and 3 to 5 years in jail to a $1,000 fine – but sadly, jail time is still a possibility.