Cannabis regulation stalls again as debate continues over penalties for minors

Despite New Jersey residents voting overwhelmingly in favor of the legalization of adult-use marijuana last November, cannabis still remains illegal for use in the state, more than two months after that vote.

On Monday, during his COVID-19 briefiing, Gov. Phil Murphy said he is hopeful there will be a solution soon.

“I’m still optimistic we’re going to figure something out,” he said. “I would reiterate (the principles) that have been present since the beginning … we’ve somehow got to thread a needle that gets everything accomplished.”

Despite this optimism, New Jersey lawmakers officially pulled a bill Monday that would have addressed Murphy’s concerns about penalties for those under 21 found in possession of marijuana. The governor was in favor of harsher penalties, while legislators pulled their support because they worried that penalties on that group were too harsh. Under that bill, anyone between the ages of 18 and 20 that was found in possession of or consuming any cannabis products would face fines between $50 and $500.

Murphy understands those concerns, acknowledging that putting younger citizens into the criminal justice system early through harsh penalties is not exactly what he is going for. However, he stood firm that, without harsh punishments for those under 21, it will almost seem as if cannabis is legal for those people.

“This was never about legalizing marijuana for our kids; that’s never what this was about,” he said. “That’s not what the voters voted on in the referendum. That’s not what we’ve felt strongly and passionately about from moment one.”

Vocal opponents to Murphy’s insistence on harsher penalties include state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), who believes the punishments the governor is advocating for will disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.

“We sent bills to the governor’s desk that both houses agreed on with compromises we could live with,” Rice said in a recent interview. “We’re not going to take these fancy words they use for enhanced, modern-day stop-and-frisk on young people — our babies.”