- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2021

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A bill in the New Jersey Legislature aimed at breaking up a logjam delaying marijuana legalization legislation got approval in a state Senate committee on Friday, setting up additional votes on Monday.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Nicholas Scutari, said in an interview he thinks the legislation has enough support to pass Monday. That’s when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy faces a deadline to act on different legislation already on his desk to legalize the recreational marijuana market for people 21 and over. Another bill on his desk also facing a deadline decriminalizes marijuana.

The legislation that advanced Friday addresses underage possession of alcohol and marijuana, which can only lawfully be used by those 21 and older.

Specifically, the new legislation would make underage possession or consumption of alcohol or marijuana subject to a written warning on the first violation. Second violations would carry a written warning as well, along with information for those 18 and older about community services, including counseling. Those under 18 would also get a written warning, along with their parents or guardians being notified. Third violations carry similar consequences, but with a written referral - instead of just information - for community services.

The legislation also removes authority from towns to enact ordinances with civil penalties or fines concerning underage possession or consumption violations on private property, among other measures.



It also increases the liability for suppliers of cannabis items to underage people by making a third or subsequent violation a petty disorderly persons offense. Currently, underage drinking is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

The bill passed out of committee with only Democratic support, but Democratic Sen. Ron Rice, a leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he voted no because he wanted to remove certain legal protections from police, referencing the legal doctrine of qualified immunity. The immunity shields officials, including police, from lawsuits for money as a result for things they do in the course of their job.

Republican state Sen. Michael Doherty voted no and questioned whether the public would support the measure.

“I think most of my constituents like the idea that there is some order in society,” he said.

Scutari, a municipal prosecutor in Linden and the bill’s sponsor, argued that the fines and penalties in place haven’t deterred underage drinking. He said the bill is the culmination of lots of discussion and “doesn’t thrust young people into the criminal justice system.”

It’s unclear whether the bill has the support of the Democrat-led Assembly or the governor. Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s office and the governor’s office declined to comment.

Murphy has to act Monday because if the Assembly meets, 45 days will have elapsed since the marijuana legalization legislation passed. If he doesn’t act, the bill becomes law without his signature. He could sign it, veto it outright or veto it with changes.

New Jersey overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment authorizing recreational marijuana for those 21 and older in November.

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