Reaction mixed after New Jersey moves forward with recreational pot

TRENTON, New Jersey (WABC) -- Reaction continues to be mixed after New Jersey approved the framework for officially legalizing recreational marijuana.

Governor Phil Murphy signed three bills into law Monday setting up a marketplace, decriminalizing cannabis, and essentially removing any serious penalties for underage possession or use of marijuana or alcohol.

Supporters say it's the right move for social justice, but some Republicans seemed aghast at reducing penalties.

"There's no consequence," GOP Sen. Bob Singer said. "We're now saying if you're caught with it underage it's a free pass."

Murphy faced a Monday deadline to enact two of three of the bills, and signed the third shortly after the Democrat-led Legislature sent it to him.

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Still, it could be about six months before the legalized marketplace is up and running, Murphy and industry analysts estimated. That's because the state's new Cannabis Regulatory Commission has to get up and running, and put in place regulations and licenses.

The main point of contention seems to be the legislation that makes underage possession of alcohol and marijuana subject to written warnings that escalate to include parental notification and a referral to community services upon subsequent violations.

Underage drinking had been punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Part of the legislation makes it so towns will no longer have the authority 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.

Murphy said that marijuana should be treated with "responsibility."

"The words adult-use have been associated with this from day one," he said.

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Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued two documents to law enforcement describing the requirements of the new laws and providing enforcement guidance.

The first directive instructs state, county, and municipal prosecutors to dismiss charges pending as of February 22, 2021, for any marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under state law.

The second provides guidance to law enforcement officers regarding enforcement requirements, including new limits on marijuana and punishments for each offense.

For consumers, the marketplace legalization means the state's 6.625% sales tax applies. Seventy percent of the proceeds will go to areas disproportionately affected by marijuana-related arrests. Black residents were likelier - up to three times as much - to face marijuana charges than white residents.

Towns can levy a tax of up to 2% under the measure.

Also under the bill, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission will be able to levy an excise tax, the amount of which will depend on the cost per ounce of cannabis. There will be four levels of tax under the bill, so if cannabis is $350 or more, the tax per ounce will be $10. That rises to $60 per ounce if the retail price of the product is less than $250.

The number of licenses for cultivators will be set at 37 for two years. The state Senate was pushing for no limits, but the Assembly wanted the caps.

The decriminalization measure is necessary because the state's laws make possession a crime, despite the voter-approved amendment, according to lawmakers. The measure passed with with broad bipartisan support.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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