Governor signs adult-use cannabis reform bills

Local legislators say it's a step in the right direction for social justice

On Feb. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy signed adult-use cannabis reform bills into law.
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On Feb. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy signed adult-use cannabis reform bills into law.

Gov. Phil Murphy has signed historic adult-use cannabis reform bills into law, legalizing and regulating cannabis use and possession for adults 21 and older, and decriminalizing marijuana and hashish possession.

He also signed a bill clarifying marijuana and cannabis use and possession penalties for those under 21.

“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. 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,” Murphy said. “This November, New Jerseyans voted overwhelmingly in support of creating a well-regulated adult-use cannabis market. Although this process has taken longer than anticipated, I believe it is ending in the right place and will ultimately serve as a national model. “

Under the first bill, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) will disseminate regulations to govern the medical and adult-use industries and oversee the applications for licensing of cannabis businesses.

The legislation provides for the legislature to reinvest cannabis revenues in designated “impact zones;” directs the CRC to promote diversity and inclusion in business ownership; and contains critical employment protections for people who engage in lawful behavior with respect to cannabis.

The second bill reforms criminal and civil penalties for marijuana and hashish offenses, and provides remedies for people currently facing certain marijuana charges.

It prevents unlawful, low-level distribution and possession offenses from being used in pretrial release, probation, and parole decisions and provides certain protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation.

Last, the bill creates a pathway to vacate active sentences for certain offenses committed before the enactment of the legislation.

The governor signed S3454 into law, clarifying penalties for marijuana and cannabis possession and consumption for individuals under 21

Murphy signed all three measures into law on Feb. 22.

“This legislation will establish an industry that brings equity and economic opportunity to our communities, while establishing minimum standards for safe products and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on real public safety matters,” said Murphy. “Today, we’re taking a monumental step forward to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system, while building a promising new industry and standing on the right side of history. I’d like to thank the Legislature, advocates, faith leaders, and community leaders for their dedicated work and partnership on this critical issue.”

A step toward social justice 

State Senator Sandra Cunningham, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, and the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey praised the signing.

“For the last 50 years, marijuana criminalization has been used as a tool to propel mass incarceration,” said Cunningham. “It has done immeasurable harm to Black and Brown communities around the country, and today we begin to right the ship here in New Jersey. I look forward to seeing the tangible impact this legislation has on our communities in the years to come.”

“Undoubtedly, this is the largest regulatory undertaking the state has considered since the Casino Control Commission,” said McKnight. “Remaining at status quo meant continued disparity in arrests for African Americans and teens for amounts now to be considered personal use.  We are moving the state in a direction more compassionate for cannabis and in line with what is happening across the country in regards to legalization.”

According to an April 2020 report released by the ACLU, an analysis of 2018 arrest statistics revealed that in New Jersey, Black people were arrested for marijuana at a rate 3.45 times higher than were white New Jerseyans, despite similar usage.

In Hudson County, Black people were arrested for marijuana at a rate 1.9 times higher than were white people.

“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,” said Amol Sinha, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, which is a founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

“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 state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like, with the removal of criminal penalties for possession and an unprecedented portion of tax revenue dedicated to addressing the harms wrought by the drug war.

“Signing these laws puts in motion the next phase of this effort: to work relentlessly to transform the principles of legalization into greater racial and social justice in New Jersey. This is a new beginning – and the culmination of years of advocacy – and we must keep in mind that it is only the start.”

“It’s time for the change we seek,” said McKnight. “New Jersey residents are not happy with the status quo, and we need to move in a direction of compassion for the communities that have long been targeted by current regulatory criteria. The call for action, for social justice reform, is resounding throughout our nation. And it begins in New Jersey today.”

In July 2019, Murphy signed legislation to reform the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Program (MMP) and expand patient access to medical marijuana. Later that same year, he signed  expungement reforms giving individuals entangled in the criminal justice system the opportunity to fully participate in society.

It eliminated fees for expungement applications and created a petition process for “clean slate” expungement for residents, as well as required the state to implement an automated clean slate expungement system.

The bill required ow-level marijuana convictions be sealed upon the disposition of a case, preventing those convictions from being used against individuals in the future.

For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.