After years of false starts and failed attempts, Gov. Philip D. Murphy on Monday signed into law three bills that effectively permit and regulate the use of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, making it the most populous state in the Northeast to fully legalize the drug.
New Jersey is now one of 14 states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis for adults 21 and older, while also easing several penalties for underage possession and allowing for the creation of a regulated market that could provide a welcomed boost to the state’s economy as it recovers from the pandemic.
Legal sales likely remain months away at the earliest, as the state takes on its next task of creating a heavily regulated industry large enough to support public demand, with licenses still to be doled out to dispensaries.
But after years of failed legislative efforts to approve the use of recreational marijuana, Monday’s move came as a long-awaited win for supporters, including Mr. Murphy, who had long pushed for the inclusion of measures to address the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests in communities of color.
“Our current marijuana prohibition laws have failed every test of social justice,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement on Monday. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey each year for low-level drug offenses is unjust and indefensible.”
Mr. Murphy championed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use as early as 2016, during his campaign for governor. But those efforts failed to muster enough support among lawmakers.
In New Jersey, the new industry is expected to generate about $126 million a year in revenue for the state once the market is created — potentially serving as a motivator for quick progress as the state struggles to fill fiscal holes during the pandemic. Mr. Murphy said on Monday that the market would “begin to take shape” over the next several months.
In Massachusetts, two years elapsed between voters’ approval of nonmedical marijuana use and the launch of the state’s first dispensaries.
New Jersey’s journey to legalization has already met delays.
In November, voters, by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, approved a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis in the state — increasing pressure on neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania to take similar steps. But state officials were still left to debate several details around implementation, including rules related to regulating and testing cannabis, how licenses would be issued and how marijuana users under 21 would be penalized.
In the months between the passage in November and the signing on Monday, the police across the state filed thousands of charges for minor cannabis possession. Guidance issued by New Jersey’s attorney general had directed prosecutors to suspend cases involving certain marijuana possession charges while the legislative process played out.
While it will remain difficult to legally purchase recreational marijuana until the state licenses its first dispensaries, some supporters saw Monday’s bill signing as the symbolic turning point after an era of racial disparities in enforcement. Black New Jersey residents were more than three times as likely as white residents to be charged with marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage.
“With Governor Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede,” Amol Sinha, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said in a statement. “Our state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like.”
The legislation signed by Mr. Murphy on Monday decriminalizes the use or possession of up to six ounces of marijuana. The drug’s use for certain medical purposes was already permitted, but, unlike in many other states, patients are not allowed to grow cannabis themselves.
Underage use or possession will be met with smaller penalties including written warnings and referrals to community services like mentorship and counseling — as opposed to harsh fines or criminal punishments.
The recreational use of marijuana is now legal in 14 states and Washington, D.C., with another ballot initiative approved by voters in South Dakota now facing legal challenges. But no other Mid-Atlantic states have successfully waded through the myriad logistical hurdles associated with the move.
In early January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York renewed his vow to permit the recreational use of marijuana, proposing a new office to regulate the market. But similar endeavors have unraveled each year since 2019, largely over disagreements about how to distribute tax dollars from marijuana sales and distribution licenses.
Opponents have argued that legalization of marijuana and a robust cannabis industry could lead to negative public health consequences, especially for underage users.
Still, with New York facing a more than $60 billion fiscal hole over the next four years and other fallout from the pandemic, the push for legalization is expected to have far greater momentum this year — as officials estimate legal weed could raise $300 million annually.
“I think this should have been passed years ago,” Mr. Cuomo said during a video briefing in January. “This year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line.”
Tracey Tully, Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.