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After weeks of fruitless negotiations on penalties for underage marijuana use and with a deadline to sign two marijuana reform bills looming, Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers inched closer to a compromise Thursday.
Talks resulted in a new cleanup bill to address the issue and discussions are continuing, according to two sources with knowledge of the negotiations. But they are far from becoming a done deal.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, plans to introduce the bill dealing with underage penalties Friday to be heard in a Community Development and Affairs Committee hearing at 2:30 p.m.
If the Legislature passed such a measure, Murphy could sign it and the two other bills legalizing (S21) and decriminalizing (S2535) marijuana into law together.
“Productive talks took place today,” according to a legislative source who was not authorized to speak publicly about the new bill. “This was a result of that.”
The bill is not yet available to the public, and it was not clear Thursday evening what provisions it contains. Wimberly did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the bill.
A note on the legislative website says the bill “revises consequences for underage possession or consumption of various forms of cannabis included in legislation passed by both Houses of Legislature.”
Murphy has remained optimistic about making a deal with state lawmakers on penalties for underage marijuana use, even as legislators have repeatedly called for him to sign the legalization and decriminalization bills they passed last month.
But if he doesn’t get the lawmakers to agree to address the issues on their own by Friday, he may issue a conditional veto.
Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, who sponsored the legalization bill, said earlier this week he thought it would be difficult to get a majority of senators to concur with a conditional veto.
On Thursday evening, Scutari said he may introduce a matching cleanup bill Friday if there’s agreement among other lawmakers.
He said the measure is somewhat similar to the past cleanup bill in that it would focus on civil rather than criminal penalties for at least a first offense, but did not provide further details about the plan.
While hopeful the agreement could move his landmark bill forward, Scutari said it was not a done deal.
The deadline for Murphy to act on the bills is Feb. 8.
Many expected the governor to sign the the two bills into law by the end of 2020. But days before Jan. 1, he said he would not sign either until lawmakers made changes to establish uniform civil penalties for those under 21 who use marijuana.
The current bills have a discrepancy: The legalization bill makes possession by those under 21 a disorderly persons offense, similar to alcohol. But the decriminalization bill makes possession of up to six ounces of marijuana legal for everyone, no matter their age.
Instead of issuing a veto in late December, Murphy sent suggestions back to lawmakers who then developed a first cleanup bill. It sought to establish fines for those 18 to 20 caught with marijuana and warnings for juveniles.
It seemed the compromise would finally push the measure over the finish line. But it fell apart days later when Black lawmakers unified to oppose the changes, saying they would lead to police targeting Black and brown teens at higher rates than white youth.
While the legalization bill passed the Legislature by smaller margins, both chambers passed the decriminalization bill with veto-proof majorities. Senate Democrats sent a letter to Murphy Wednesday afternoon calling on him to sign decriminalization bill into law as negotiations continue on legalization.