TRENTON — Efforts to reach a compromise over how to handle underage marijuana possession once the drug is legally available to adults ended unsuccessfully Wednesday.

The cancellation for a second straight day of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the so-called "cleanup" bill will seemingly force Gov. Phil Murphy to decide whether to enact the plan despite reservations or veto a campaign promise two-thirds of voters approved in a November referendum.

“The governor has two bills on his desk that he has articulated problems with, and it doesn’t appear that the Legislature is going to solve those problems,” said Bill Caruso, an attorney and founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

One bill provides the framework for the legalization, taxation and regulation of adult-use recreational marijuana and passed the Legislature narrowly. The other decriminalizes the possession of marijuana and was passed by veto-proof majorities.

Gov. Murphy's legalization options

Murphy’s choices appear to be: conditionally veto the bills and return them in a version he supports, even though lawmakers say they wouldn’t agree to the changes; veto the bills outright and start over; or sign what’s on his desk and encourage a follow-up bill later.

“It’s interesting to figure out where we are right now,” Caruso said. “I don’t think even folks in the Legislature know, to be perfectly honest with you, and I think certainly the governor’s in the dark right now on where we’re going.”

Murphy’s deadline to act on the bills is now noon Friday. That could be delayed to Monday though probably not much further without disrupting Murphy’s budget address and other work.

“There’s so many issues unrelated to cannabis. This can’t dominate and tie up the entire agenda,” Caruso said.

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What's holding up legalization?

The main inconsistency between the bills passed in December seems to be how to handle marijuana possession by minors. The decriminalization bill provides for no penalties, and Murphy has indicated that he wants to ensure there is a deterrence for its use by people under age 21.

Caruso said the problem is some lawmakers seem focused on resolving issues such as police reform and juvenile justice that weren’t actually part of the November ballot question.

“Those are really important issues,” he said. “They’re not unique to cannabis. They touch upon cannabis; they’re not unique to cannabis. And those are going to require work, but they’re not going to get solved in a cannabis bill.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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