Gov. Phil Murphy (D) on Monday signed multiple marijuana-related bills to legalize use for adults 21 and older, remove penalties for small amounts of the drug, and create a regulated market.
Murphy came into office in 2018 after campaigning to legalize marijuana. But the idea faced a rocky path to fruition as the state’s lawmakers debated whether and how to implement legalization. Ultimately, lawmakers put the issue in front of voters last November — and the ballot initiative won overwhelmingly, with 67 percent support. Even then, legalization efforts stalled as Murphy and legislators debated penalties for those under 21 years old. Only after New Jersey’s legislature passed a bill that imposed civil penalties for those under 21 did Murphy finally sign the full suite of legalization legislation.
“This process may have had its fits and starts, but it is ending in the right place,” Murphy said on Monday. “And, I firmly believe, this process has ended in laws that will serve as a national model.”
New Jersey already allowed marijuana use for medical purposes. The new laws expand legalization to recreational and other nonmedical uses.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But starting with former President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal government has generally allowed states to legalize cannabis with minimal federal interference.
As of Monday, 14 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, although DC doesn’t allow recreational sales. (South Dakota voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in November, but that measure’s future is uncertain as it’s caught up in legal battles.)
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will create a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on the backs of the heaviest consumers of their products. And they argue ending prohibition could result in far more people using pot, potentially leading to unforeseen negative health consequences.
In New Jersey, legalization supporters have won the day.
For more on the debate over marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.
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