Despite the November vote, cannabis is still not legal in New Jersey

Gabrielle Saulsbery and Daniel Munoz//January 5, 2021//

Despite the November vote, cannabis is still not legal in New Jersey

Gabrielle Saulsbery and Daniel Munoz//January 5, 2021//

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Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to sign the cannabis legalization and decriminalization bills because there was a drafting error in one of the bills that legalized it for children, according to three sources familiar with the negotiations, including one official.

The official told NJBIZ Monday “We’re pretty close,” and just have “to clean it up.”

New Jerseyans voted 2-to-1 in November to legalize adult-use cannabis by Jan. 1, but without signed bills, it’s not yet legal. Last week, Murphy sent the Legislature proposed changes, according to a source, which includes fines for underage use less than the ones issued for underage drinking.

Now, he and the Legislature aim to have the issue cleared up by Jan. 11, the official said, which would include language for a ticket, civil penalty, and/or community service, depending on age, for those caught with cannabis under 21.

Another source familiar with negotiations said they believe that as long as the legislation, which will likely include an amendatory bill thus making it a trio of bills, is passed by or in conjunction with Murphy’s presentation of the State-of-the-State address, the delay will be all but forgotten as New Jerseyans move forward with legal cannabis consumption.

“Politically it’s another blemish that you and I will scoff at in private [and] if they do that, no one is going to pay attention to…all of this drama [of not legalizing cannabis by Jan. 1],” the source said.

When Murphy signs the bill, the clock starts on the 180-day window the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has to establish the industry’s regulatory framework. At this point, three members have been named: Dianna Houenou, a senior advisor within the governor’s office and long-time advocate of racial justice with an extensive resume in criminal justice reform, chairs the CRC; Jeff Brown, who oversees the state’s existing medical marijuana program, is the executive director; and South Jersey-based social worker Krista Nash.

Two more members must be appointed before the commission is complete. A source familiar with the process told NJBIZ that the delay has much to do with behind-the-scenes political jockeying.

Dan McKillop, who chairs the cannabis practice at Scarinci Hollenbeck, said that New Jerseyans “should be conservative” with regard to cannabis use ahead of the bill signing, despite the constitutional amendment that went into place Jan. 1.

“Though there may be a constitutional protection, there’s no mechanism to legalize adult-use in New Jersey because Murphy has not signed the legalization or decriminalization bill. We’re stuck in a limbo,” he said. “At best, we have a situation where if an adult in New Jersey who is not a medical marijuana patient is caught possessing or using cannabis, they can get arrested, prosecuted, and it would set up a pretty interesting argument with respect to the amendment and the fact we don’t have any laws on the books.”

“This should have been clarified and crystalized a long time ago, certainly before Jan. 1,” McKillop said.

In a press conference Monday, Murphy said he and the Legislature “are having very constructive engagement as we have from the get-go on this one.”