Low-level marijuana arrests to stop in N.J. as Murphy signs legal weed bills

N.J. Gov. Murphy holds up a recreational marijuana bill

N.J. Gov. Murphy signed three recreational marijuana bills on Monday, Feb. 22. (Office of Gov. Phil Murphy)

Updated: 4:43 p.m.

Recreational marijuana will finally become legal in New Jersey under three bills signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday, more than three months after voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in the November election.

Monday’s actions mean police should immediately stop making arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession. But residents likely won’t be able to buy weed from a dispensary for “plus or minus six months,” Murphy said, as state regulators begin the process of setting up the legal marketplace and awarding licenses.

The Democrat promised during his campaign for governor that he would legalize the drug, saying he supported the policy change for social justice reasons.

“New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws, which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, and which disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise, are no more,” Murphy said during an unrelated press conference.

“It’s a massive blow to the drug war,” said Rev. Charles Boyer.

Boyer, a Woodbury pastor and founding director of the group Salvation and Social Justice, supported legalization, but noted the state still has to set up the dispensary system and allocate funding for the regulatory commission each year.

The legislation narrowly passed both houses of the Democrat-controlled legislature over objections from Republicans that it virtually eliminated repercussions for underage alcohol and drug use.

“This is absolutely in my mind a way to say: If you want to smoke marijuana if you’re underage, you can. If you want to drink if you’re underage, you can,” said Sen. Bob Singer, R-Ocean. “And there’s no consequence for your actions.”

The other two bills that passed in December decriminalized possession of under six ounces of marijuana and set up the tax structure for legal weed sales, which includes sending 70% of marijuana sales tax revenues to communities of color hit hardest by the war on drugs. Murphy signed all three bills at once.

Murphy and lawmakers also disagreed on the penalties for people under 21 caught with marijuana. The governor wanted there to be some consequences for underage possession while some lawmakers feared Black and Latino kids would be targeted by the police.

Under a “clean-up” bill passed Monday, people under 21 caught possessing or consuming marijuana or alcohol would be given a written warning. A second violation would garner another written warning, which would be sent to the person’s parents if they were under 18. Third and subsequent violations would be met with a written warning and a referral to community services programs.

The other two bills that passed in December decriminalized possession of under six ounces of marijuana and set up the structure for legal weed sales. Murphy signed all three at once.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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