2 Steps Forward, 1 Back — Lawmakers Forge Ahead with Trio of Pot Bills

Lilo H. Stainton and Carly Sitrin

Expanded access to medical cannabis; easier, more extensive expungements; ending arrests for low-level marijuana crimes: It’s all in a day’s work in Trenton.

After a tumultuous day in Trenton, New Jersey lawmakers advanced a trio of marijuana-related legislation that would expand access to medicinal cannabis, make it easier for nonviolent drug offenders to step out of the shadows of their criminal records, and — in a surprise bill — end arrests for some low-level marijuana crimes.

And while another committee canceled its vote on one of the measures Monday, reportedly to give members more time to discuss the bill, it is possible some of the proposals could be posted for a vote before the full Assembly and Senate as early as May 30.

The measures included a new decriminalization proposal, passed by the Assembly appropriations committee, that would impose a $50 civil fine for anyone caught with up to two ounces of marijuana, rather than the arrest called for under current law, as well as a hefty fine and up to 18 months in jail. The panel released this bill and the medical expansion and expungement legislation.

Pushing pot

The push to further open the state’s medical marijuana program and advance bills to offer second chances for individuals who get caught with small amounts of drugs comes after months of legislative starts and stalls. It also reflects leaders’ inabilities to pass a plan to legalize adult recreational use that Gov. Phil Murphy has long urged.

But on Monday the Senate health and Assembly appropriations committees both voted to support a bipartisan proposal to nearly double the number of permits available for medical marijuana operations to 23, including provisions to encourage small and minority- and women-owned businesses. The legislation would add to a number of regulatory reforms that have grown the program, which now reaches some 46,300 patients.

The bill would also allow patients to obtain up to three ounces of medicine a month, as opposed to the current limit of two ounces, and require medication to be clearly labeled, including a production date. It would also allow for more medical professionals to recommend the treatment, make it easier to add more qualifying conditions to the state’s list, and eliminate the 6.6 percent sales tax in 2025.

The Senate bill (10/2426), was also amended significantly to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to create highly controlled “consumption areas” so patients have a legal place to ingest the medication. Further, it would permit municipalities that host cannabis businesses to impose a 2 percent sales tax of their own. Earlier versions of the bill included language gradually phasing the sales tax out by 2024. This version, however, maintains that 2 percent in full until 2025, and allows localities with a dispensary to tack on a 2 percent transfer tax as well.

Certifying cannabis workers

Lawmakers also added a requirement that employees at medical marijuana facilities obtain a state “handler’s certificate,” although details were scarce. And it banned the state from using someone’s status as a patient or a cannabis worker as grounds to investigate their parenting or take away their children, among other things.

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