Will New Jersey Be The Next State To Legalize Marijuana

By Roger Malespin

Newly elected New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made the promise to “put justice back in criminal justice” throughout his campaign, and in his inaugural address in January, specifically mentioned his intent to decriminalize marijuana.

““A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces criminal justice reform comprehensively, and that includes a process to legalize marijuana,” Murphy said.

Legalization is one of many points of his criminal justice plan, which also includes changes to mandatory minimum prison sentencing laws, complete bail reform, and expanding post-prison reentry services. His stance on marijuana mirrors that of fellow Democrat and newly elected Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, who focused on the racial injustice aspect of ineffective drug laws during his campaign.

While the growing support for decriminalization at high government levels is excellent news, there is an equal if not stronger opposition force whose interests are in keeping the status quo, or in minor changes that will have little effect on the current state of affairs.

A bipartisan group of NJ state lawmakers proposed legislation in response to Murphy’s calls. Democratic State Senators Ronald Rice and Joseph Cryan, and Republican Senator Robert Singer introduced a bill which would allow New Jersey residents to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana, as well as eliminate penalties for being under the influence. However, they stopped short of full legalization.

“I think this whole legalization stuff has to slow down” Senator Rice said. He believes that the main beneficiaries of legalization would be lawyers and bigger business interests rather than the small business owners who are hoping to cash in on the new market.

Critics of the scaled-back legislation argue that those measures would allow the black market to continue because if only small amounts of legal marijuana sale and possession are permitted, the consumers would be forced to continue to buy from illegal drug dealers.

In the New Jersey Senate, Democrats hold a 25-15 majority over the GOP, which means Dems can afford to lose the support of 4 of their own in order to maintain the 21 vote majority to take to the Governor’s desk. But Republican unity on the issue looks unlikely, as at least two Senators are leaning towards voting for legalization. Sen. Chris Brown has said he has “an open mind” on legalization, while a source within the

A NJ State Republican party member, speaking with anonymity, said Sen. Dawn Addiego is leaning toward a yes vote, pending more data collection and the final draft of the bill.

In New Jersey, the bill for legalization for recreational use of marijuana is still evolving and is in its early stages, so we can expect more back and forth between supporters and detractors. There may also be significant changes to the current proposed wording. Although supporters and advocates want action, Governor Murphy declined to give a specific date to when changes will be implemented.

"I don't want to marry myself to a particular day," he said. "But I would hope it's sooner than later."

Marijuana enthusiasts and supporters would do well to keep an eye on New Jersey’s progress on legalization. Full legalization on par with Colorado would open another front on the East Coast for decriminalization and bring much needed reform to a state where Black citizens are incarcerated for marijuana offenses at triple the rate of White citizens.