TRENTON — Phil Murphy vowed to voters back in 2017 that he would legalize marijuana in his first 100 days in office. Now it looks like legalization, if it ever happens, will come long after his first thousand days.

Democratic lawmakers this month dealt a blow to the governor's agenda by revealing that the marijuana question would likely be put directly before voters during next year's election.

In the meantime, lawmakers said they would discuss decriminalization of marijuana, which would keep it illegal but decrease arrests. New Jersey has the third-highest marijuana arrest rate in the country. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that marijuana possession arrests in the state have climbed 35% in four years.

Murphy has said he is disappointed but would support the marijuana referendum. And on Tuesday, he said he would reluctantly support decriminalization as a "critical short-term relief."

"Maintaining a status quo that sees roughly 600 individuals, disproportionately people of color, arrested in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses is wholly unacceptable," Murphy said in a written statement Tuesday.

“I look forward to working with Senate and Assembly leadership, as well as members of the New Jersey Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses, to pass sensible decriminalization legislation as soon as possible.

“Although I remain disappointed in the Legislature’s inability to legislatively legalize adult-use marijuana, I am optimistic that the people of New Jersey, who overwhelmingly support legalization, will vote to do so. And, when they do, we will take a critical and long overdue step for real criminal justice reform.”

While legalizing cannabis would treat it like alcohol or tobacco, decriminalization would only remove criminal sanctions for possessing certain amounts. Depending on how the law is written, people could still be punished with fines or mandatory drug counseling while avoiding a criminal record.

Decriminalization may have an easier time passing the Legislature.

State Sen. Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican from Monmouth County, said Tuesday that decriminalization "of possession of small amounts of marijuana should be at the top of our priority list."

“I firmly believe that we should actively pursue reasonable, comprehensive reforms to our marijuana possession laws. Decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana should be at the top of our priority list" as a way to address "harsh, disproportionate penalties" and "the indisputable fact of the racial disparities that seem to permeate enforcement of these laws."

“Make no mistake though, people who are in possession of larger amounts with intent to sell should still face appropriate, proportionate penalties. Those selling to minors should face penalties an order of magnitude higher," he said.

Murphy had hammered out a deal with his party's top lawmakers in the spring to legalize and tax marijuana but Democrats couldn't get enough of their own lawmakers to support the legislation. Among the hangups was what to do with the criminal records of people who have been arrested or convicted under existing marijuana laws.

Before the marijuana vote gets on the ballot, the Assembly and state Senate have to approve the question with a 60% supermajority. If lawmakers can only muster a simple majority for the question by the end of January, they will have to take a second vote on it before the end of August in order to get it on the 2020 general election ballot.

If voters approve the constitutional amendment question, the Legislature would still have to craft and adopt the law.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email

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