Deadline On NJ Marijuana Legalization Delayed

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Gov. Phil Murphy

Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers continue to struggle to strike a deal that will allow New Jersey to begin the process of selling marijuana in New Jersey. But they're also raising hopes that some agreement could be reached soon.

Lawmakers extended a Monday deadline for Murphy to act on legislation that would begin the process of selling marijuana, signaling that all sides may be able to work out issues that have prevented a deal from happening.

Murphy, speaking during a news conference on Monday, said he's had a "good back and forth" and that he's hopeful that any issues can be resolved soon. Read more: WATCH: Gov. Murphy Issues NJ Coronavirus, Vaccines Update

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin extended the deadline to Feb. 18, allowing the Senate to "complete its discussions and conclude negotiations with the Assembly and governor on revisions to the cannabis legislation."

The legislation would address Murphy's concerns that the state Legislature's bill doesn't penalize underage adults and children for using the drug.

"Voters overwhelmingly support the legalization of cannabis and we are taking every step necessary to assure legalization and decriminalization become law," Coughlin said.

"Significant progress has been made and we are hopeful that concerns raised will be able to be addressed. I remain optimistic an agreement will be reached and that fair and responsible legislation will be advanced which will facilitate A-21 and A-1897 becoming law," he added.

Murphy was expected to sign the legislation, which could have led to a marijuana marketplace in about six months for people 21 and older. But he has so far declined to sign the bill, even though he had signaled his support for it.

Lawmakers pulled bill last month that would have addressed the Murphy administration's objections to legal issues in the legislation, A-21.

Voters already approved a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, which went into effect on Jan. 1. The legislation is now needed to officially create the framework for legalizing the personal use of the drug, decriminalize the substance and remove it from the Schedule I drug list.

Until the legislation is passed, it's still not technically legal to use the drug in New Jersey. Read more: NJ Marijuana Enters Weird, Legal Limbo – Is It OK To Smoke Yet?

Talks collapsed last month over Murphy's efforts to make sure there were penalties for underaged, under-21 users.

The Murphy administration and state legislative leaders came up with a compromise that addressed those penalties, but lawmakers ultimately abandoned it last month.

Lawmakers pulled their support because a new "cleanup bill" would impose penalties that were considered too harsh on minors charged with possession of the drug.

Democratic Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, told Politico that removing the penalties for underage offenders was the Legislature's original intent. Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, told Politico that the cleanup bill's provisions would merely lead to another form of "stop-and-frisk."

Murphy, addressing the matter during a news conference last month, said he's "still optimistic we're going to figure something out" on legalizing marijuana but he also said "we've got to somehow thread the needle" to address everybody's concerns.

Murphy said the last thing he wants is "more kids getting tangled up in the criminal justice system. None of us want that. Period."

But he also said: "This was never about legalizing marijuana for our kids."

"That was never what this was about. That's not what the voters voted on in the referendum. That's not what we've felt strongly and passionate about," he said.

The cleanup bill would have provided that:

  • Anyone between the ages of 18 and 20 in possession of marijuana or any cannabis item in any school, motor vehicle or public place could be fined between $50 and $250.
  • Anyone between the ages of 18 and 20 who possesses marijuana or cannabis and knowingly consumed the drug in any school, motor vehicle or public place would be fined an amount between $100 and $500.
  • Minors under the age of 18 in possession of marijuana or cannabis would not be subject to a civil penalty. Instead, they would be subject to a curbside warning or "stationhouse adjustment," allowing law enforcement agencies to resolve a violation without formal court proceedings. They could also be required to participate in an alcohol or drug abuse education or treatment program.
  • The stationhouse adjustment would establish one or more conditions that the person would be required to meet in exchange for the law enforcement agency declining to pursue a formal delinquency complaint.

The delays come two months after the state New Jersey Assembly and Senate voted in favor of legislation that clears the way and creates a framework for marijuana legalization. The bill needed Murphy's signature to become law, but he never acted on it.

Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, R-Morris, said the deal's delays echoes his concerns that "the process to legalize marijuana moved way too quickly and was backwards from the beginning."

"There are extremely complex criminal, regulatory, social, and tax implications that should have been figured out before a question was placed on the ballot," he said.

The specific regulatory process has not been finalized, and some state officials have said that it could take anywhere from 6 months to a year for the drug to be sold in stores. Any delay in legislation will likely delay the selling of the drug in New Jersey.

Lawmakers and advocates say the legislation will ultimately create a framework for legalization that benefits communities who have disproportionately been affected by drug arrests.

Much of the earlier debate over the bill initially centered around two aspects: tax revenue and social justice. Often, those two things are connected.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Nicholas Scutari and Senator Teresa Ruiz say tax revenue from the drug will be dedicated to repairing heavily impacted communities.

Sweeney and Scutari say about 30 percent of the sales tax revenue from legal cannabis would fund the operations of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the state board charged with overseeing New Jersey's recreational and medical marijuana programs.

The remaining 70 percent of the sales tax revenue – and 100 percent of a "social equity excise fees" on cultivators – would aid "impact zones," the communities hurt most by drug laws, Scutari and Sweeney said.

"With legalization comes an unprecedented opportunity for residents to clean the slate with expungement provisions and for communities to grow their economic base with businesses," said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union.

Other key details of the legalization bill, A-21, include:

  • A cap on the number of cannabis facilities at 37 for the first 24 months after enactment of the legislation
  • Municipalities can prohibit marijuana businesses in their communities, but those that choose to allow them could collect a 2 percent tax and retain the revenue.
  • There will be business incentives for minorities, women and disabled veterans to help them participate in the industry

With reporting from Eric Kiefer and Montana Samuels.

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