Marijuana in New Jersey is legal, but sales are months away.
Legislation signed on Monday decriminalizes up to six ounces of cannabis for use or possession, ending a period of disproportionate arrests in communities of color.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy signed into law three bills on Monday, after years of false starts and failed attempts, that effectively allow and regulate the use of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, making it the most populous state in the Northeast to completely legalize the drug.
New Jersey is now one of 14 states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis for adults 21 and over, while also relaxing some penalties for the possession of minors and enabling a controlled market to be developed that could provide a welcome boost to the economy of the state as it recovers from the pandemic.
Legal sales are likely to remain months away at the earliest, as the state focuses on the next challenge of establishing a tightly controlled industry sufficiently large to meet consumer demand, with licenses yet to be issued to dispensaries.
But Monday's change came as a long-awaited victory for advocates, including Mr. Murphy, who had long pushed for the inclusion of legislation to combat the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests in communities of color, following years of unsuccessful legislative attempts to approve the use of recreational marijuana.
Mr. Murphy said in a statement on Monday, "Our present marijuana prohibition laws have failed every social justice test." "It is unfair and indefensible to maintain a status quo that enables tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested each year in New Jersey for low-level drug offenses."
As early as 2016, during his bid for governor, Mr. Murphy championed the legalization of marijuana for commercial use. But those attempts failed to gather adequate support among lawmakers.
In New Jersey, once the market is established, the new industry is projected to produce around $126 million a year in revenue for the state, potentially serving as a motivator for fast change as the state struggles during the pandemic to fill fiscal holes. On Monday, Mr. Murphy said that over the next few months, the market will "begin to take shape."
In Massachusetts, two years went by between the legalization of non-medical marijuana use by voters and the opening of the first state dispensaries.
The path to legalization in New Jersey has already faced delays.
A constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis in the state was adopted by voters in November by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, raising pressure on nearby states including New York and Pennsylvania to take similar measures. However, some specifics regarding implementation, including regulations relating to the control and testing of cannabis, how licenses would be issued and how marijuana users under the age of 21 would be penalized, were still left to be discussed by state officials.
In the months between the November passage and the Monday signing, thousands of charges for minor possession of cannabis were brought by police throughout the province. Guidance released by the Attorney General of New Jersey ordered prosecutors to postpone proceedings involving some charges of possession of marijuana while the legislative process was taking place.
Although legally purchasing recreational marijuana would remain difficult before the state approves its first dispensaries, some proponents saw the signing of the bill on Monday as a symbolic turning point after a period of racial disparities in compliance. Black New Jersey residents, despite comparable rates of use, were more than three times as likely to be charged with marijuana possession than white residents.
"The decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede with Governor Murphy's signature," Amol Sinha, the executive director of New Jersey's American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "The cannabis laws of our state may set a new standard for what justice might look like."
The law signed on Monday by Mr. Murphy decriminalizes the use or possession of up to six ounces of cannabis. The use of the drug for certain medicinal purposes has now been approved, but patients are not allowed to cultivate cannabis themselves, unlike in many other states.
Underage use or possession, as opposed to harsh fines or criminal charges, would be faced with smaller penalties, including written notices and referrals to community programs such as mentorship and therapy.
In 14 states and Washington, D.C., recreational use of marijuana is now legal, with another ballot initiative approved by voters in South Dakota now facing legal challenges. Yet no other Mid-Atlantic states have waded through the various logistical challenges associated with the transfer successfully.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York reiterated his promise in early January to authorize the recreational use of marijuana, introducing a new consumer enforcement office. But since 2019, parallel initiatives have unraveled each year, primarily over differences about how to allocate tax dollars from sales and distribution licenses for marijuana.
Opponents have argued that marijuana legalization and a robust cannabis industry may have adverse public health implications, especially for underage users.
Nevertheless, with New York facing a fiscal hole of more than $60 billion over the next four years and other repercussions from the pandemic, this year's drive for legalization is expected to have even greater traction, as officials predict that legal marijuana will collect $300 million annually.
"This should have happened years ago, I think," Mr. Cuomo said during a January video briefing. "It's going to give us the momentum this year to get it over the goal line."
“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,” Murphy said in a statement. “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.”
The three bills help fulfill a pledge he made more than three years ago. Voters in November approved legalization. Murphy, however, had to wrangle with fellow Democrats, who control the legislature, over how police would treat people under 21 in possession of marijuana.