'A new beginning': New Jersey becomes 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana, dismissing 'broken, indefensible' laws

Mike Davis, Asbury Park Press
·4 min read

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey on Monday officially became the 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana, as Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year.

New Jersey is the first state in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic to eschew decades of arrests in favor of a program that would stop tens of thousands of arrests per year and kick-start a new cannabis industry that could be an economic boom for the state and region.

The only other states on the East Coast where marijuana is legal are Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts.

"New Jersey's broken, indefensible marijuana laws — which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise — are no more," Murphy said in a Monday press conference.

"In their place are laws that will usher in a new industry, based on equity, which will reinvest dollars into communities — laws which promote both public health by promoting safe cannabis products and public safety by allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes," he added.

The laws signed Monday allow the possession and use of marijuana by anyone over 21 years old within the state of New Jersey, who can have up to 6 ounces of weed on them without facing any penalty.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy poses shortly after signing marijuana legalization bills into law, making the state the 13th state to legalize marijuana for adult use. The bills come after more than two-thirds of voters supported a ballot measure to legalize cannabis.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy poses shortly after signing marijuana legalization bills into law, making the state the 13th state to legalize marijuana for adult use. The bills come after more than two-thirds of voters supported a ballot measure to legalize cannabis.

The laws also allow the purchase and sale of legal cannabis at state-licensed dispensaries, though it could be well over a year before recreational sales even began.

Some marijuana offenses will remain criminal, including drug distribution and growing cannabis plants without a license. New Jersey is the only state with legalized marijuana that doesn't allow at least its medical marijuana patients to grow, and joins Washington as the only states without some recreational home grow.

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Recreational marijuana use for adults is also legal in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. territory of Guam, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In all, 47 states have some type of legality, ranging from recreational use to medical use, with only Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska not offering public access programs, according to the NCSL.

More than two-thirds of New Jersey voters backed a marijuana ballot question in November, but the constitutional amendment put forth by the referendum could not take effect until such rules and regulations were in place.

In New Jersey, the campaign to legalize marijuana was largely pursued as a social justice-driven mission.

Some of the marijuana being sold by Ed Forchion, known best as NJ Weedman, sits on a table outside the Governor’s office on West State Street in Trenton Thursday, September 27, 2018.  He billed this as his boldest stunt - selling marijuana outside the Statehouse while daring police to arrest him.
Some of the marijuana being sold by Ed Forchion, known best as NJ Weedman, sits on a table outside the Governor’s office on West State Street in Trenton Thursday, September 27, 2018. He billed this as his boldest stunt - selling marijuana outside the Statehouse while daring police to arrest him.

The “vote yes” campaign was led by officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which ran digital advertisements – live events were dismissed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – educating voters on the negative effects of a simple low-level marijuana possession arrest and the millions in tax dollars spent on prosecuting such cases.

"Our state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like, with the removal of criminal for possession and an unprecedented portion of revenue dedicated to addressing the harms wrought by the drug war,” ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said. "This is a new beginning – and the culmination of years of advocacy – and we must keep in mind that it is only the start.

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"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.”

According to crime data from the FBI, New Jersey police departments made over 33,000 arrests for marijuana in 2017, the ninthhighest marijuana arrest rate per capita in the country, according to the ACLU.

And in New Jersey, Black people were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates among races, the ACLU said.

“The failed War on Drugs has systematically targeted people of color and the poor, disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities and hurting families in New Jersey and across our nation," U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said in a statement. "Today is a historic day."

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY.

Follow Mike Davis on Twitter: @byMikeDavis

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: New Jersey legalizes marijuana, 1st state in Northeast and 13th in US