TRENTON – It’s been 107 days since New Jerseyans — more than two-thirds of them — voted to legalize marijuana.
But due to protracted, sometimes heated negotiations and disagreements among legislators, legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Murphy, weed remains just as illegal in New Jersey as it was before Election Day.
In December, the Legislature passed two bills to decriminalize and legalize marijuana. But those bills have sat on Murphy’s desk as he awaits a “clean-up” bill to address what he’s identified as a major flaw: What’s the state going to do about kids and weed?
“The last thing we need is more young kids getting tangled up in the criminal justice system,” Murphy said in a January press conference.
But critics say any police oversight leaves Black youths in particular exposed to police action; studies show they are far likelier than other groups to be stopped by police and arrested on marijuana charges
There have been numerous versions of a clean-up bill, all of which have been stopped in their tracks by Murphy or other legislators who said they wouldn’t vote for it.
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And there’s still a chance that a final compromise bill will be agreed upon, signed into law and sent to Murphy’s desk — giving him the three-bill package he’s requested.
By next week, we’ll know more about what’s next for legal weed in the Garden State.
There are a few ways this can go based on Murphy’s next moves, which we’ll break down here:
What if Murphy does nothing?
Per state law, if a bill is passed but remains unsigned for 45 days, it becomes law at the next quorum of the chamber in which it originated.
Both bills originated in the Assembly, where Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, has scheduled a quorum call — a simple roll call allowing the Assembly to conduct committee meetings and possible voting sessions — for 1 p.m. Monday. That’s Murphy’s deadline to take action.
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That deadline can be rescheduled, and already has before: Coughlin has twice pushed back the quorum call from Feb. 5 to Feb. 18 and now to Feb. 22, giving Murphy and legislative leaders enough time to work out a compromise and find the votes for it.
Passing a law by this route is very rare. The last time it occurred was in 2007, when a manufacturing energy and tax bill became law after then-Gov. Jon Corzine took no action.
What if Murphy signs the bills?
This is the most direct step a governor can take in order to legalize marijuana. The bills are sitting on his Murphy’s desk, each having won approval in the Senate and Assembly.
But the legislative package has technical flaws, especially when it comes to how the state will handle underage marijuana users once the drug is made legal.
S21, the bill which mainly sets the rules for purchasing legal weed, specifically states that it wouldn’t be legal for anyone under 21 years old to possess marijuana.
But A1897, the decriminalization bill, would remove all penalties or fines for possessing up to 6 ounces of marijuana — and it doesn’t include any language about age.
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Legislators have said this was deliberate, a way to limit police interactions not just with Black adults but Black teenagers and children, as well.
But the governor has stated that the bill would essentially legalize weed for kids, which is not what the voters got behind last year.
The ballot question — and constitutional amendment — approved by voters last fall stated that the question was whether to legalize weed for adults over 21 years old.
What if he signs one, vetoes another?
One route Murphy could take would be to split the difference — signing one bill but not the other.
If he signs the decriminalization bill into law, it would stop the arrests of most low-level marijuana possession offenders. Six ounces is the biggest threshold among states with legal weed. Other offenses would be downgraded under the bill, while those charged with distribution of up to 1 ounce of marijuana would receive a written warning on the first offense.
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Meanwhile, Murphy could veto the other bill that would legalize the purchase of marijuana and set up the rules governing the cannabis industry. In the short-term, this may not change much — after all, nobody is currently purchasing legal weed (without a medical marijuana card), so there are no dispensaries to be regulated or taxes to be collected.
But this could come back to bite the state in the long run. Those rules and regulations will need to become law if New Jerseyans are to ever purchase legal weed, as they voted for last year. The longer those rules and regulations are delayed, the longer it will be until those purchases can be made.
And if the Legislature adheres to its typical calendar, it could be a while before the issue is even discussed again.
The nuclear option: Murphy’s veto power
Think of this as the nuclear option — it would send the entire process back to the drawing board.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has said the Legislature will start from scratch on enabling legislation instead of concurring with any conditional veto — which sends a bill back to the Legislature with requirements that must be met before the governor would sign it into law.
And on Wednesday, Scutari told the New Jersey Globe he “didn’t know when” that process would begin.
The Legislature adheres to a relatively rigid but unofficial calendar which essentially clears the deck from March through June for budget negotiations.
This means the enabling legislation for marijuana legalization could be pushed to the backburner until July — and that’s assuming legislators want to pick the issue back up in the summer when, historically, the legislative chambers become a ghost town.
That sets up the possibility of legal weed being pushed back to the fall, almost a full year after New Jerseyans voted in favor of it and nearly two years after those same legislators placed the issue on the ballot in the first place.
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.