By: Michael Mandarino, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor
SOUTH JERSEY — This week, the use of recreational marijuana was officially legalized for those aged 21 and older in New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy signing the legislation culminated years of work he’s put towards legalizing the drug in his state.
New Jersey is the 14th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and it did so after voters in the state voted “yes” on a referendum to legalize by a 2-to-1 margin in November’s general election. New Jersey is now the most highly-populated state in the Northeast to legalize marijuana, but there are a few important layers and details to dive into regarding legalization in New Jersey.
One obvious consequence of Monday’s legislation is the simple fact that community members cannot and will not be arrested for marijuana-related charges. According to NJ.com, police officers throughout the state made 6,000 marijuana-related arrests between Election Day and Valentine’s Day. However, those cases were not prosecuted due to official legalization being on the horizon.
As you’re reading this, you can get high in New Jersey with no legal ramifications. More specifically, the legislation signed Monday allows community members older than the age of 21 to possess and consume up to six ounces of marijuana.
Monday’s legislation also drastically changed police policy surrounding marijuana. The drug’s odor no longer constitutes probable cause for a search during a traffic stop — unless the officer suspects DUI. Driving while under the influence of marijuana is obviously still illegal.
Additionally, underage use of marijuana and alcohol was essentially decriminalized as part of Monday’s legislation. According to the Asbury Park Press, police officers can’t conduct searches even if an underage community member is using marijuana or drinking alcohol in plain sight of the officer.
Minors do not have to consent to searches of their vehicle if a police officer suspects marijuana or alcohol possession/use. In lieu of criminal punishments such as fines or arrests, underage use or possession of marijuana and/or alcohol will be punished with written warnings and referrals to mentoring, counseling, or other community services.
These measures might sound great for community members, but law enforcement officers aren’t the biggest fans of its changes on how underage cases involving marijuana and alcohol are handled.
“Unfortunately, the legislation was amended with language that contains severe penalties on law enforcement officers who attempt to use the odor or possession of marijuana AND alcoholic beverages as a reason to stop and search minors to enforce the law,” the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) said in a press release. “We are urging every member of law enforcement to avoid approaching people with marijuana until a proper legal analysis and direction can be developed once this law is signed by the Governor.”
As part of legalization, however, New Jersey will heavily regulate how the drug is circulated and used among of-age community members. The state created the Cannabis Regulatory Commission shortly after voters chose to legalize, and it will likely take months before marijuana is sold in the state.
Right now, there are a little more than a dozen dispensaries scattered throughout New Jersey — including The Botanist in Egg Harbor Township and Curaleaf NJ in Bellmawr. However, they’re only licensed to sell medical marijuana at this time. Gov. Murphy said that the recreational marijuana market will “begin to take shape” over the next few months, and it’s expected to generate more than $100 million in revenue for the state annually once it’s up and running.
It’ll be difficult to legally buy weed in New Jersey until the state-run-and-regulated market is up and running, and other states’ experiences in kickstarting a marijuana market aren’t the most encouraging. Massachusetts, for example, didn’t have its first recreational dispensaries open for nearly two years after legalizing marijuana.
Signing Monday’s legislation was the culmination of one of Gov. Murphy’s biggest goals. It reverses the legal vilification of a drug that is far less dangerous than its reputation suggests, but some lawmakers also believe legalization addresses another important issue: racism within law enforcement.
“With Governor Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede, in a shift that emphasizes the urgency of building the most equitable framework possible for cannabis legalization,” Amol Sinha, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said in a press release. “With this historic reform, New Jersey also shifts our approach to youth possession and use by moving away from the punitive status quo to a framework that values public health, harm reduction, and the well-being of young people.”
“Our current marijuana prohibition laws have failed every test of social justice, which is why for years I’ve strongly supported the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” Gov. Murphy added in a release. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey each year for low-level drug offenses is unjust and indefensible.”
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