N.J. lawmakers whipping votes for recreational marijuana deal as deadline looms

Feb 19, 2021

Lawmakers in New Jersey have shaken up their legislative agenda for the rest of the week to accommodate what could be the final deal on legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.

Voters approved legal recreational marijuana in the November election, but lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy have yet to reach a compromise on bills that would set up the new market and revise penalties for underage possession.

New Jersey State House. (Emma Lee)

Although both houses of the legislature approved “enabling legislation” in December, and a decriminalization bill sits on Murphy’s desk, the first-term Democrat hasn’t signed either one.

The dispute is over what should happen when a person under 21 is caught by law enforcement with the drug. Murphy has said he wants there to be consequences for underage use of marijuana, but some lawmakers, including members of the legislative Black caucus, have opposed a proposal for civil penalties for youth, saying young Black and brown people would continue to get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Black people were about 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, according to 2018 arrest data analyzed by the ACLU, though it was not broken out by age.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said the panel would meet Friday afternoon to consider a bill imposing minimal penalties, such as written warnings and fines. The bill would create two sets of civil penalties — one for those under 18 and another for young adults ages 18 to 21.

Scutari scrapped a vote on the proposal on Wednesday over lack of support, but he said Democrats were whipping votes in an effort to gather enough backing before Friday’s meeting.

“We’re close. We’re not there yet,” Scutari said Thursday afternoon.

The Assembly also canceled a session scheduled for Friday, which delays a deadline for Murphy to sign or veto both of the bills on his desk. The cancellation gives Murphy and lawmakers more time to work out a compromise.

A spokesperson for Murphy said the office had no comment Thursday afternoon.

This is far from the first hiccup in the long road to legalizing recreational marijuana in the Garden State.

Lawmakers first tried to legalize the drug through the legislature, but the state Senate had to call off a 2019 vote because there were not enough votes to pass it, which prompted legislators to put the question on the ballot and let voters decide.

Then, after voters approved legalizing marijuana in November by a 2-to-1 margin, lawmakers’ first attempt at a bill setting up the new market fizzled out. Black lawmakers and social justice advocates raised concerns over inequities in the legislation, calling for sales tax revenue to be dedicated to Black and Latino communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.

Still, more than three months after voters approved the ballot question on legalization, arrests have continued and criminal justice advocates say lawmakers need to act quickly on a solution.

“The legislature and the governor’s office underestimated the complexity of what they were trying to do, and it unraveled,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, which supports recreational marijuana legalization.

Still, Sinha said there may be a silver lining to the delay. He suggested that New Jersey could avoid what Colorado saw after legalization: an increase in pot arrests for Black and Latino teens.

“The fact that there’s this debate going on for the consequences for youth is a really good thing in some ways, because we are addressing up front the issues that other states that legalized had to deal with on the back end,” Sinha said.