Why legalized marijuana in NJ remains a pipedream

Bickering and stark differences over how to address social justice issues have put passage of legalization bills in peril
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New Jersey’s three-year journey to end the prohibition on marijuana has again bogged down in internecine bickering and blown deadlines in the State House.

Promised as a measure to right the social wrongs created by the war on drugs, the legalization effort has reached a point at which it’s on the brink of collapsing under its own weight. Social and racial justice may have inspired the campaign, but legalization remains an elusive target in New Jersey. Everyone claims to be for it, but they don’t quite know how to define it.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) canceled a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday where he was hoping to work out “the final piece of the puzzle” and nail down a legalization bill that would  satisfy both the governor and members of the Black Legislative Caucus. Instead, senators remained divided over legislation and do not have enough votes to pass a bill. Negotiations to mend the differences on pending legislation between the Senate and Gov. Phil Murphy have ended as well.

Cannabis recap

The Legislature passed two marijuana bills on Dec. 17 — one to launch a cannabis industry and the other to decriminalize possession for adults. But Murphy has since demanded an additional “cleanup” bill to address a contradiction in the two measures over penalties for minors caught with marijuana. The legalization bill makes underage possession a disorderly-persons offense, while the decriminalization bill does away with all penalties. Murphy would not sign a bill, he said, that makes marijuana legal for minors.

But several drafts of a cleanup bill have come up short.

The deal-killer Wednesday was reportedly the result of a heated disagreement among lawmakers over how to hold police officers accountable if they mistreat Black and brown minors caught with marijuana.

Some members of the Black Caucus — led by Sens. Ronald Rice and Nia Gill (both D-Essex) — insisted on eliminating “qualified immunity” from lawsuits for police officers who mistreat minors with marijuana, according to two legislative sources involved in the process.

The quest to legalize marijuana has now morphed into a police-reform measure. That has predictably prompted pushback from police unions and some of the more conservative lawmakers. Either way, the bill no longer has enough votes to pass.

“Underage penalties, all of those issues are explained in the original bills,” Scutari told NJ Advance Media, pulling the plug on negotiations. “All avenues to clarify it any further are exhausted.”

Looming deadline

With a voting session scheduled for Friday, lawmakers and Murphy are now staring down a serious deadline. State law dictates that when the Assembly convenes Friday, as scheduled, the clock will run out: If Murphy does nothing, the two bills will become law without his signature. His other options are to veto them outright or issue a conditional veto that states his specific objections to be remedied. But that appears to be a nonstarter, since Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has said he will not respond to a conditional veto.

And while legislative leaders negotiate among themselves to acquire sufficient votes, they are simultaneously haggling with the administration, which has different priorities. It has become a thorny challenge to find the legislative balance between deterring minors from using marijuana, as Murphy wants, while protecting them from potential police bias.

The most recent version of the cleanup bill had offered dramatically lower penalties and fines, with an option for community service. Under it, police would also be required to attend bias training. They would be prohibited from stopping someone because they smell marijuana, and would be required to have their body cameras turned on while interacting with minors.

Murphy’s best intentions

Murphy took office in 2018 with a promise to legalize pot for adult use in his first 100 days. It was not about the revenue for the state coffers, he insisted, it was about putting an end to the insidious damage being inflicted on Black and brown communities with each marijuana stop, arrest and conviction. With decisive public support, as well as fellow Democrats controlling both houses of the Legislature, it seemed all but a done deal.

It wasn’t.

There were a number of reasons: Democratic legislative leaders couldn’t find enough votes to pass a bill, so they punted the task to New Jersey voters, who last November overwhelmingly approved a measure to amend the state Constitution and legalize pot — effective Jan. 1.

But several attempts to pass enabling legislation were aborted at the 11th hour, mostly because of concerns raised by the Black and Latino legislative caucuses — mainly in the Senate — over the lack of racial and social justice remedies in the bills. After several false starts, and intense negotiations, the Legislature finally passed the two enabling bills in December.

Several drafts of the cleanup bill have been proposed and pulled as well, also over resistance from minority lawmakers who opposed various provisions they felt would disproportionately target Black and brown youth.

In the meantime, police have arrested thousands of people on marijuana charges since New Jersey citizens voted to make it legal last November.