February 23, 2021

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted to legalize marijuana within his first 100 days in office. He succeeded three years later, and three months after New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to make weed legal for adults. Murphy signed a series of laws Monday that decriminalized possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, creates a recreational marijuana marketplace for adults, and bars criminal penalties for people under 21 caught with either pot or alcohol.

Murphy quietly signed the bills Monday morning, right after the state Senate and Assembly passed the measure creating civil penalties for underage possession. The legislature had sent the other bills to Murphy in December, but he had declined to sign them until the youth penalties were ironed out. Murphy said he did not want young people, especially the young Black people disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession, to get "tangled up in our criminal justice system." He highlighted the criminal justice aspect of the legislation — and dropped in a weed pun — in a celebratory tweet Monday night.

Once a new Cannabis Regulatory Commission is seated, it will have six months to set up rules and regulations and begin licensing recreational dispensaries. The cessation of marijuana arrests, decried by some police unions, should begin much quicker. Under the new law, minors caught with alcohol or marijuana will get written warnings, escalated to parental involvement and then community service for repeat violations. Peter Weber

2:27 p.m.

The United States has identified a Russian-led disinformation campaign seeking to undermine confidence in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, an official with the State Department's Global Engagement Center told The Wall Street Journal.

The official said four websites that U.S. intelligence has marked as fronts for Russian intelligence have exaggerated the risk of side effects associated with the Pfizer shot and other Western vaccines and falsely questioned their efficacy and speed of their approval process. The sites don't have large readership numbers, but officials are reportedly concerned they could be amplified.

Pfizer is likely the main target because it was the first vaccine besides Russia's own Sputnik V to see widespread, global use, the Journal reports. An upcoming report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a German Marshall Fund-affiliated NGO which focuses on authoritarian governments, reportedly says Russia likely views Pfizer as a threat to "Sputnik's market dominance."

A spokesman for the Kremlin denied that Moscow was orchestrating a campaign against any vaccine, arguing that if Russia were to treat "every negative publication" about the Sputnik jab "as a result of efforts by American special services, then we will go crazy because we see it every day, every hour, and in every Anglo-Saxon media." Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

1:59 p.m.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told ABC News' Martha Raddatz on Sunday that the United States still doesn't have a clear assessment of who may have been behind a rocket attack against Iraq's Ain al-Asad base, which is used by U.S.-led coalition troops, earlier this week. And while Washington intends to make sure they get a firm answer, Austin said "you can expect that the U.S. will always hold people accountable for their acts ... we'll strike, if that's what we think we need to do, at a time and place of our own choosing."

President Biden previously signed off on airstrikes in retaliation for a similar attack carried out by Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria, a decision that prompted some criticism from congressional Democrats who felt the administration didn't adequately brief lawmakers before moving forward. Austin's comments, however, suggest that such a move could again be in Biden's playbook depending on the outcome of intelligence findings. Tim O'Donnell

1:12 p.m.

West Virginia has built a reputation for executing an effective COVID-19 vaccine rollout. There are likely a few factors behind this. For instance, independent, local pharmacies have played a large role in creating an easy appointment scheduling system while also having the luxury of having already established trust within the community. But messaging has also been essential, the state's Republican Gov. Jim Justice told CBS News' Margaret Brennan on Sunday's edition of Face the Nation.

Polling suggests the rollout should have been more challenging in a state like West Virginia, which is largely Republican and heavily rural. Brennan showed Justice statistics that found that nearly 40 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of American adults who live in rural areas are hesitant to receive the vaccine. But Justice said his administration and medical experts have been transparent, honest, and direct with West Virginia's population. "I tell them this almost every day: For crying out loud do you really think you're gonna take the vaccine and grow antlers?," he said. "I mean come on, just look at all the medical knowledge that's around you. You gotta be taking the vaccines, and they are." Tim O'Donnell

12:37 p.m.

On the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday — the name given to the events on March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama, which included a civil rights march led by the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the violent response from state police — former President Barack Obama's foundation revealed the text that will appear on the exterior of his planned presidential library in Chicago.

The words will come from a speech Obama, the United States' first Black president, gave in Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015.

The passage that has been selected reads: "You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow ... America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word 'We.' 'We The People.' 'We Shall Overcome.' 'Yes We Can.' That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours."

Watch the introductory clip below. Tim O'Donnell

11:27 a.m.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday denied allegations that his country is carrying out genocide against the Uighur population in the northwestern Xinjiang province. "The so-called 'genocide' in Xinjiang is ridiculously absurd," Wang said during his annual news conference. "It is a rumor with ulterior motives and a complete lie."

Several countries, including the United States, have used the term to describe Beijing's human rights abuses against Uighurs, an ethnic minority that largely practices Islam, and Wang attempted to flip the script by focusing on past genocides and injustices in those countries. "When it comes to 'genocide,' most people think of native North Americans in the 16th century, African slaves in the 19th century, Jews in the 20th century, and the indigenous Australians who are still fighting today," he was quoted as saying.

China claims that Uighurs have been placed in "re-education camps" that provide vocational training and are designed to eradicate extremism, but there is growing evidence that allegations of forced labor and sterilization and systematic rape and torture at the concentration camps are legitimate.

In addition to the genocide denial, Wang defended China's plans to reform Hong Kong's electoral system, which critics believe will ensure Beijing loyalists are in charge, and he also called on the U.S. to remove "unreasonable" curbs on China to improve bilateral cooperation. Read more at BBC and Reuters. Tim O'Donnell

11:07 a.m.

Pope Francis on Sunday was greeted by thousands of Iraqi Christians as he toured parts of the country's northern region that were once held by the Islamic State, including Mosul, a major city The Associated Press notes was once considered the heart of the so-called caliphate.

"How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people — Muslims, Christians, Yazidis — who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism," Francis said in Mosul while surrounded by four hollowed-out churches nearly destroyed in the war to oust ISIS. "Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war."

Francis urged Iraq's Christians, a dwindling minority population, to both "forgive" and not "give up" along the way to a "full recovery." He also emphasized the assistance Mosul's Muslims provided to returning Christians, and prayed for the Yazidis, an ethnic minority that was brutally targeted by ISIS.

In Qaraqosh, a formerly ISIS-occupied Christian-majority town, journalists captured the "jubilant" atmosphere ahead of Francis' arrival. He then led a prayer service in a newly-refurbished church that had been gutted by ISIS. Tim O'Donnell

7:47 a.m.

Ana Liss became the third former aide to accuse New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of inappropriate workplace behavior. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Saturday night, Liss said that during her tenure as a policy and operations aide in the Cuomo administration between 2013 and 2015, the governor asked her about her dating life, called her sweetheart, touched her lower back at a reception, and once kissed her hand when she rose from her desk.

Two other former aides, Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan, have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, and New York Attorney General Letitia James is overseeing an investigation into the matter. Liss did not appear to directly allege sexual harassment, but she did describe Cuomo's behavior toward her as inappropriate and patronizing, explaining that the governor never asked her about her work. "I wish that he took me seriously," Liss, who won a competitive fellowship to work on economic development programs in the Cuomo administration, told the Journal.

Liss said she never filed a formal complaint, but she did ask for a transfer to another office before leaving the state government altogether in 2015. She said her experience working for Cuomo prompted her to begin mental health counseling, and another fellow who worked in the administration at the same time told the Journal he noticed Liss became more withdrawn over time.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is also under fire after reporting revealed his office manipulated COVID-19 death statistics in nursing homes last year, and on Saturday, the editorial board of The Times Union, the newspaper that serves Albany and the New York capital region, called for his resignation over the matter. Read more at The Wall Street Journal and The Times Union. Tim O'Donnell

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