New compromise offered to finally end dispute holding up N.J. legal weed

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Lawmakers have introduced a new proposal for penalizing those under 21 who are caught with marijuana, a move that could bring Gov. Phil Murphy closer to signing a bill to legalize weed.

But this bill must receive committee approval Monday and pass both the state Senate and Assembly by next Thursday, the latest deadline for Murphy to take action on bills to establish a legal marijuana industry and another to end arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

 

If it does not, Murphy will have to act on the bills as they are.

 

Voters said yes to legalizing marijuana in a landslide election in November, and lawmakers passed the legalization and decriminalization bills by mid-December.

 

But Murphy has said he will not sign the bills until they establish uniform, civil penalties for those under 21 caught with marijuana. The current bills are at odds with one another, with one eliminating all penalties for possessing up to six ounces of marijuana and the other making underage possession a disorderly persons offense.

 

Debates on how to handle those penalties have stalled the bills for six weeks. In that time, police filed more than 2,000 charges for minor marijuana possession, according to the state judiciary.

 

Lawmakers introduced an initial “cleanup bill”, which would make changes to the two bills already passed, to move talks forward in early January.

 

But that died days before it was scheduled to go to both the Senate and Assembly floors.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, introduced a similar, second cleanup bill two weeks ago that has passed through a committee.

 

The latest, introduced Friday, calls for civil penalties like warnings and fines like Wimberly’s bill, but makes some changes. People ages 18 to 20 caught with marijuana would face $50 fines, and those younger would receive written warnings that escalate upon each offense.

 

The Senate Judiciary Committee has a meeting scheduled Monday to debate the latest bill.

 

Under the proposal, a first juvenile offense would result in a written warning, a second as a written warning that also involves parents and the third as a $50 fine or community service if the person is unable to pay.

 

Police could not search someone based only upon smelling marijuana or detain people past the point of issuing a fine or warning. Officers must have body cameras on while interacting with an underage person.

 

The bill also requires police to undergo trainings on how to interact with underage people caught with marijuana and on avoiding implicit racial bias in enforcing the penalties.

 

It also includes specific offenses for those of age who provide marijuana to those under 21 that resemble penalties for selling tobacco to minors.

People caught selling marijuana to those underage would also face escalating fines, starting at $250 for a first offense up to $1,000. And someone who knowingly purchases marijuana on behalf of a person under 21 could face 30 days in jail or a fine of $500.

 

The latest bill includes more protections from police for young people, which could make it more favorable to those who opposed the last penalty bill. The previous effort fell apart after members of the Black Legislative Caucus said they feared the enforcement could disproportionately target Black and brown youth.

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