Lawmakers back off from NJ legal-weed bill

Final vote set for Monday, but supporters say objections over penalties for minors are too great

The fate of legislation to legalize marijuana —  scheduled for a vote in the Legislature Monday —  is uncertain once again.

In a Friday caucus meeting with Democratic Senators, lawmakers decided to pull a so-called cleanup bill that the governor had demanded to fix what he considered a shortcoming in the original bills passed Dec. 17.

Members of the Black and Latino legislative caucuses voiced strong objection to the cleanup bill, which specified penalties for minors who are caught possessing marijuana, according to Sen. Nicholas Scutari, sponsor of the legalization bill.

Scutari (D-Union) said Sen. Ron Rice and others believe the new bill creates a new vehicle for cops to revive stop-and-frisk tactics on minors — a practice that has fallen out of favor in police departments in New Jersey.

“This is precisely what I’ve been arguing for a long time. My whole agenda is to keep kids out the criminal justice system. I cannot support anythig that drives more Black and brown kids into the the system,” co-sponsor Sen. Teresa Ruiz told NJ Spotlight News.

After hearing their concerns, Scutari said he withdrew his name from the bill, along with Ruiz (D-Essex).

“If Ron Rice and the Black caucus is against, then so am I,” said Scutari. “The governor is going to have to sign the bills we sent him, or conditionally veto them. Enough is enough already.”

Murphy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Senate President Steve Sweeney also did not immediately respond for comment.

Two legislative committees on Thursday approved identical versions of the cleanup bill, NJ A5211 (20R).  In that legislation, law enforcement would be able to issue minors a “curbside warning” or detain them for a “stationhouse adjustment” that would steer them  counseling, community service or a drug-abuse treatment program.

The amendments would also reduce the minimum civil penalties from $250 to $50 for individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 caught with less than an ounce of cannabis. For more than one ounce, the penalty ranges from $100 to $500.

The path to legalize adult-use marijuana has been long and tortured.

Scutari first proposed legislation in 2017. But the bill went nowhere because then-Gov. Chris Christie was adamantly opposed to legalization. But in 2017, Murphy was elected governor and promised to legalize weed in his first 100 days in office.

Scutari dusted off his bill, but the Legislature was unable to muster up enough votes. Instead, they decided to put it to the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. That passed by a 2-1 ratio in November.

The bill was dusted off again. It became two bills: one to legalize and establish a regulated industry for adult-use recreational marijuana, and a second to decriminalize possession of marijuana in amounts under six ounces.

But over the past two months, the bills were abruptly pulled over a number of objections voiced by lawmakers and social-policy advocates. Finally, it appeared all differences had been resolved, and both houses passed the two bills on Dec. 17.

It was shortly after that when the governor’s office identified what they called “a drafting error,” and demanded the changes regarding minors.