New marijuana bill introduced; swift passage expected

Daniel J. Munoz//February 12, 2021

New marijuana bill introduced; swift passage expected

Daniel J. Munoz//February 12, 2021

Lawmakers have introduced a revised clean-up bill for marijuana legalization and aim to have it on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after floor votes in both the state Senate and Assembly on Feb. 18.

Should Murphy receive the bill that day and sign it soon after, the move would mark the end of his years-his efforts to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana and tax and regulate the market. The governor campaigned on accomplishing that goal within his first 100 days after taking office in 2018.

The proposed Senate Bill 3454 introduced on Feb. 12 in the state Senate creates a series of non-criminal penalties for those between the ages of 18 and 21 caught with non-medical marijuana, and those under the age of 18.

A hearing is scheduled for the bill on Feb. 15 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, said the bill will move swiftly through the state Legislature, passing out of both chambers on Feb. 18 and onto Murphy’s desk. The governor then would sign three bills — the clean-up bill, a measure decriminalizing marijuana and the broader legalization proposal.

“I think we’re almost there,” Coughlin said during a Friday morning radio segment on WCTC 1450. “What we tried to do through this entire process” is focus on “social justice.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin

In November, voters by a two-to-one margin approved a ballot question  to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana, tax it at the standard 6.625% state sales tax and regulate the market with the five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

Weeks later, Murphy, Coughlin and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, reached what appeared to be a deal on legalization and the measure was sent to Murphy’s desk on Dec. 17 with the expectation that he would sign the law by the end of the year.

But the governor has pushed back on the measure, saying that both legalization and the decriminalization proposal did not address penalties for the underage use of marijuana. The two bills now on his desk contradict each other: one makes underage possession a disorderly person offenses while the other creates blanket decriminalization for possession of up to six ounces of cannabis.

A clean-up bill to rectify the issue moved through the Legislature, but talks collapsed after the key Senate sponsors pulled their support. Coughlin extended Murphy’s deadline to act on the bill, giving him until Feb. 18 rather than Feb. 8.

The new proposal creates $50 fines for those between the ages of 18 and 21. Anyone below the age of 18 would be subject to an escalating series of actions, starting from verbal warnings and up to a $50 fine or community service.

There are a heavier series of fines for those who sell it to anyone under the age of 21, and for those who buy marijuana for someone who they know is underage. Police cannot conduct a search based on just sensing an odor of marijuana, nor can they detain anyone for that reason.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus worried that youth enforcement could disproportionately affect Black and Brown young people who have for generations borne the brunt of law enforcement efforts.

“We’re trying to avoid establishing criminal records for young people,” Coughlin said. “It’s now more analogous to alcohol than the way it had been historically treated.”