Cannabis legalization bills in New Jersey hit a snag on Tuesday when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy directed lawmakers to include provisions that levy civil fines for marijuana possession and use by individuals under the age of 21. The state Senate and Assembly passed separate bills to decriminalize possession of marijuana and regulate a licensed cannabis industry on December 17 in response to the approval of a legalization ballot measure that was approved by voters in the November election.
The governor’s office announced on Monday that it was working to rectify differences between the Senate and Assembly versions of the bills that have delayed the measures being signed into law by Murphy. But the governor’s last-minute demand to include punishment for underage people caught possessing pot is threatening the enactment of legalization by January 1 as required by the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters last month.
Murphy said on Monday that he was working to resolve a “technical but important issue.” The governor has reportedly included the provisions to impose civil fines for underage possession of marijuana in a cleanup bill sent to lawmakers on Tuesday. Under the bill, persons under the age of 21 caught with up to one ounce of marijuana would be subject to a civil fine of $250, while possession of one to six ounces would carry a fine of up to $500. The measure also amends discrepancies between the Assembly and Senate versions of the legalization bills.
“Through the cleanup bill, we’re bringing standardization and coherence to the process,” a source in Murphy’s administration who was not authorized to speak publicly told local media.
No Penalties For Underage Possession In Bill Passed By Lawmakers
As written and approved by legislators, the legalization bills include no provisions for penalizing possession of cannabis by young people. With Murphy’s changes, those under 21 would not be subject to arrest but could be assessed the civil fines, which are actually less than the penalties on the books for underage drinking.
If lawmakers agree to the changes requested by Murphy, the cleanup bill would have to be approved by both houses of the legislature. The measure could be signed into law and go into effect before the beginning of the year as required by the ballot measure. If that fails to happen, laws against possession would still be on the books and leave people subject to arrest, despite a clear mandate from the people to legalize cannabis by January 1.
“It is paramount that lawmakers agree to a legislative remedy by the end of the year in order to comport with the will of the voters and to avoid further confusion,” Carly Wolf, the state policies coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a press release. “Justice delayed is justice denied. It is long past time that New Jerseyans enjoyed the same freedoms as those in many other states and are able to legally possess cannabis without the threat of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.”