In a historic victory for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from the ACLU of New Jersey and partner advocates, the New Jersey Legislature passed groundbreaking legislation to end the prohibition of cannabis, which has disproportionately harmed Black and brown communities.

S21/A21 implements the constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for adult use that was overwhelmingly approved by New Jersey voters in November, largely for reasons of racial and social justice. The bill puts in place one of the most ambitious community reinvestment models in the country, devoting 100 percent of an excise fee on cultivators and 70 percent of the cannabis sales tax to social justice initiatives in the communities that have borne the brunt of unjust and racially disparate cannabis law enforcement.

Although the legalization bill offers great promise, it leaves more work ahead for advocates and community members committed to a legalization scheme that begins to repair the harms of prohibition and builds an equitable and inclusive industry. The ACLU-NJ and partners will push for more racial and social justice provisions during the regulatory and budgeting processes and in future legislation.

Decriminalization legislation also passed in the Assembly in a full floor vote, followed by a concurrence in the Senate, giving New Jersey one of the nation’s most progressive policies to stop criminalizing the use of cannabis, removing all criminal and civil penalties for cannabis possession of up to 6 ounces. The bill, S2535/ A1897, sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, decriminalizes up to 6 ounces of cannabis, and downgrades the penalty for sale of up to 1 ounce with a warning for a first offense, followed by a charge of a fourth-degree crime for subsequent instances.

“We cannot overstate the significance of today’s votes in terms of racial justice and civil rights, or the monumental achievement of establishing one of the most ambitious models for community reinvestment derived from cannabis legalization in the country. With these pieces of legislation, we will stop arrests and end the collateral consequences that burden so many, and begin to address the pernicious, racist legacy of prohibition – but justice will follow only if we hold lawmakers to their promises of equity and work relentlessly for the pivotal justice measures that were not included. . We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, and the ACLU-NJ will do all we can to ensure that the injustices of prohibition do not carry over to legalization,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

Advocates have their sights set on the next stages of the work to build justice in the new cannabis industry through the regulatory and budget processes and implementation, and in follow-up legislation to fill gaps that remain unaddressed in this bill. A21/S21 includes a severe cap on the number of licenses, awarding only 37 cultivator licenses for the first 24 months after the bill is enacted, more than half of which have already been granted to medical cannabis licensees. The bill does not include several important justice measures, such as: restoring dedicated funding for expungement, limiting random workplace drug testing, and, crucially, closing a loophole that allows well-resourced businesses to claim and benefit from impact zone applicant status rather than residents.

The ACLU-NJ’s priorities once implementation and decriminalization go into law include:

  • Securing robust community input regarding allocation of funds for community reinvestment
  • Building equity into the industry through work with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, including the prioritization of including individuals from impact zones and those with prior cannabis-related records and their families in licensing
  • Ensuring that people aren’t still subject to arrests and criminalization based on cannabis
  • Making sure the expungement process is accessible, fair, and effective

“We’re ready for the next phase of this long road toward justice, and our work begins now. We thank the prime sponsors and champions of these bills, Senator Nicholas Scutari, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, and Assemblyman Jamel Holley, along with all of the other sponsors and lawmakers who informed the tax allocation and prioritized community reinvestment. We thank Senator Teresa Ruiz and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly for leading the way on a bill that decisively stops criminalizing people – disproportionately Black and brown people – for use of cannabis. We look forward to working with all of our elected officials, including the Legislature, Gov. Murphy, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, and local leaders to secure even greater justice and move far beyond these harmful policies that have harmed communities of color for decades,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo.

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