New Jersey on Monday officially became the 13th state to legalize marijuana, as Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year.
New Jersey becomes the first Mid-Atlantic state to eschew decades of weed arrests in favor of a program long touted by social justice advocates. It marks the end of tens of thousands of weed arrests annually and the beginning of a cannabis industry that could be an economic boom for the state and region.
Currently, the only other states on the East Coast to legalize weed 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 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.
"And yes, we are fulfilling the will of the voters by allowing adult use cannabis, while having in place common sense measures to deter its use among kids," Murphy added.
The laws signed Monday allow the possession and use of marijuana by anyone over 21 years old within the state of New Jersey. They can have up to 6 ounces of weed on them without facing any penalty.
The laws also allow the purchase and sale of legal weed 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 legal weed that doesn't allow at least its medical marijuana patients to grow weed. It joins Washington as the only states without some recreational home grow.
"We're going to go with the bills I just signed. We'll leave it at that," Murphy said, deflecting a question about home grow. "I appreciate the folks who have reached out on that front, but we're going to go with what we've got."
The new laws capped three months of legislative debate over the rules and regulations for legal weed, most recently a weeks-long stalemate over penalties for marijuana users under the age of 21.
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.
The “vote yes” campaign, dubbed NJ CAN 2020, was led by officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who ran digital advertisements — live events were dismissed due to the raging 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.
"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 ninth-highest 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."