In November, the entire nation took notice of New Jersey when, in an election ballot initiative, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana.
The nation is paying at least as much attention today as the process through which people in New Jersey can actually use marijuana has ground to an abrupt halt.
New Jersey Bill A-21, the passing of which would make it legal to sell marijuana in New Jersey, has had a rocky road in the office of Governor Phil Murphy. An amended bill was supposed to have been voted on this Monday but the bill was pulled by its sponsor, Nick Scutari, Union County.
The reason this is drawing national attention is because the people of New Jersey already voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. While that historic vote took effect on New Year’s Day, it is technically still not legal for people in New Jersey to use marijuana recreationally.
In New Jersey, there is a cannabis regulatory commission, whose responsibility it is to regulate marijuana. The bill that was pulled is one effort in bringing together the interests of the people of New Jersey, the regulatory commission, New Jersey legislators, and the governor. Simply put, until negotiations can produce an agreement that goes through, it remains illegal to use marijuana in the state.
This means that any resident of New Jersey who decides to smoke or otherwise use recreational marijuana can be arrested. Practically, the state can postpone or even dismiss any related charge, but the fact that recreational marijuana users at the moment have to rely on leniency from the police or prosecutors was not the intent of the voters in overwhelmingly supporting the New Jersey constitutional amendment.
So New Jersey finds itself in a strange limbo where the voters voted but legislation is needed to:
- Create a framework for legalizing the personal use of marijuana in the state;
- Decriminalize its use;
- Remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs.
New Jersey is one of the states with the highest number of marijuana arrests per year, often over 30,000.
What is the most surprising about this week’s events Is that it was just a few weeks ago that the New Jersey Senate and Assembly voted in favor of legislation that would legalize marijuana. All that was required at that point was Governor Murphy’s signature for the bill to become law, but the governor never took action.
There is disagreement on the reason Governor Murphy did not, before January 1, sign the bill that passed both New Jersey houses in December. Some have argued that there was a drafting error in the bill that omitted underage marijuana possession finds, while others have argued that it was a policy decision from the governor’s office not to sign any bill that would leave out those fines.
Voices against the bill sponsored by Mr. Scutari argue that it represented a modern “stop-and-frisk” with fines and penalties that do not align with the clear will of the voters.
With all of the recent events surrounding legalization of marijuana in New Jersey demonstrate how complex a political, legislative, and societal issue this is, having users exist in both a political and legal limbo makes no sense for anyone in the state.
About John B. Brennan
John B. Brennan, of New Jersey’s Law Office of John B. Brennan, has over 30 years of criminal trial experience. A former prosecutor, he has tried over 100 felony cases and resolved thousands more by way of plea negotiations in the Superior Court of New Jersey. He has earned the seal of being certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Criminal Trial Attorney. Less than 250 attorneys in the entire State of New Jersey hold this designation.