Last updateWed, 14 Apr 2021 11am


New Jerseys Legal Marijuana Debate

New JerseyOn Nov. 3, 2020, 67 percent of New Jersey voters had voted in favor of the legalization of marijuana, according to the New Jersey Law Journal. On Feb. 22, Governor Phil Murphy signed the bills into law, making cannabis legal in the State of New Jersey.

The road to legalization has been a legislative battle at the state house in Trenton.

The referendum in November enabled lawmakers to establish rules for its legalization. With the vote in November, it was an amendment to the New Jersey State Constitution which allows for a pathway to legalization which lawmakers and the Governor alike are debating.

Governor Murphy ran much of his 2017 gubernatorial campaign on legalizing marijuana in the Garden State to address social inequities and generate tax revenue to further fund programs that the state carries out. In Trenton, with a supermajority of political power concentrated in the hands of the Democratic Party, a clear consensus still has not been reached.

The state assembly is in intense debates on how to properly legalize marijuana. The legislation hopes to establish a Cannabis Regulatory Commission, similar to how alcohol and gambling are regulated in the state. At the helm of legal marijuana in the State Assembly is Nick Scutari (D-Union) and Senate President Steve Sweeny (D-Gloucester). Scutari argues that legal marijuana can help fix decades of injustices on communities of color while a regulated market can help bolster the state economy.

The legalization hit a roadblock in January when Governor Murphy and state legislators had disagreements about underage penalties. Murphy is concerned about under 21 marijuana use and sought penalties for those under the age. Legislators such as Senators Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Ron Rice (D-Essex), Nia Gill (D-Essex) and Scutari all pulled support from the bill, which would include penalties. Their fears were that penalties could create a stop and frisk situation or over-policing in vulnerable communities.

Douglas Collier, Professor or Criminal Justice and a retired DEA Agent, weighed in on the issue. He said, “Trenton needs to do the right thing for our youth, which is paramount for their health and safety.” Collier said that the law needs to ensure that minors are protected from getting their hands on the drug for their own safety, but also stressed the importance of education.

Conversations on the subject halted for a while, but have since resumed the week of Feb. 15. The new talks do concede the underage penalties to Governor Murphy, which is a $50 fine for people aged 18-20 and a warning for those under. But, as per The Patch, “The new legislation, however, would effectively end searches of underage people who are under suspicion of using or possessing the drug. Smelling the drug’s odor would also not be a valid reason to investigate.”

The talks are moving forward, so New Jersey residents could potentially see the official legalization relatively soon. This all still comes as law enforcement continues to make marijuana-related arrests.

According to NJ.com, 6,000 charges have been filed since the November referendum, but Attorney General Gurbir Grewal put a directive out to local prosecutors to halt or push back low level offenses. Still, the law of the state is that possession of marijuana is still illegal for recreational purposes and the current statutes are being enforced.

John Comiskey, Ed.D., Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and retired New York City Police Lieutenant, cited that the law still has not changed. He raised the question, “I do not know to what extent, are they enforcing it per say or is someone being arrested for another charge and it comes up as an incidental charge?”

Often in cases, one is investigated or searched for a differing reason, then law enforcement discovers other applicable charges in the process.

Political science student, Anthony Calamari, stated his views on the legalization efforts. He said, “I believe it’s good with respect to decreasing arrests and getting less stigma. I also think it’s appropriate to make the legal smoking age the same as the legal drinking age as well.”

Overall, the cultural attitudes towards marijuana are changing across the country. If and when New Jersey does legalize it they will join a handful of states in leading the charge.

Nicholas Sewitch, J.D., Chair of the Criminal Justice Department, discussed the implications of legalized marijuana. He said, “There needs to be a few myths cleared up. Laws that criminalize marijuana is a myth in New Jersey. Let’s debate marijuana as something different than lowering prison populations.”

Sewitch continued, “In states with legalization, fatalities have seen an increase. Alcohol is easy to detect, but marijuana is tested via blood.” Trenton has been in deep talks for months with plenty of debate. 


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