Democrats introduce 4 bills to ease state’s marijuana restrictions

By Matt Friedman

Businesses that won’t hire applicants because they test positive for marijuana would find themselves ineligible for incentives from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, under legislation recently introduced.

The bill, NJ A3535, which does not yet appear online, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, was one of several introduced last week that seek to make New Jersey a more marijuana-friendly state — even as resistance in the state Legislature has made it clear that Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s wish to legalize recreational marijuana may not happen any time soon.

“I believe that our incentive programs need to be an extension of our values,” Quijano, who represents Union County, said in a phone interview. “And we shouldn’t reward companies who fire their workers for doing something that is currently medically legal in New Jersey, and recreationally legal in about eight U.S. states and Washington, D.C.”

The EDA has doled out billions in controversial tax breaks aimed at boosting the state’s economy.

Under Quijano’s bill, the EDA would adopt rules and regulations barring businesses that receive financial assistance from “taking any adverse employment action” against an employee or applicant based on their testing positive for marijuana. And businesses would sign an agreement not to fire marijuana-using employees as part of their standard contract with the EDA. If businesses violate the agreement, the EDA could stop financial assistance or even force them to give it back.

There are several exceptions in the bill. The ban would not apply if it would cause a business to lose money or a license under state or federal law, if marijuana use by employees “poses an actual threat or harm or danger” and if the employee’s use of marijuana makes him or her “incapable of performing an essential job duty.” The bill would still allow businesses to fire employees caught using marijuana on the job.

Jeanette Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the anti-marijuana legalization organization New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, said her group opposes the bill.

“For a multitude of reasons, ranging from safety to productivity to liability, New Jersey employers should have the ability to maintain a drug-free work environment,” Hoffman said in a statement. “The state EDA shouldn’t punish employers for trying to keep drugs — whether legal or illegal — out of the workforce.”

The state’s use of corporate incentives ballooned under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, totaling $8.3 billion during his eight years in office. Murphy has indicated he will consider scaling back the tax break programs.

Three other bills were also introduced last week that seek to increase access to New Jersey’s notoriously strict medical marijuana program.

Assemblymen Reed Gusciora and Tim Eustace, both Democrats, proposed a bill, NJ A3437, that would greatly loosen New Jersey’s medical marijuana law. The bill does not yet appear online.

Gusciora said the bill was written in anticipation of the findings of a panel Murphy created last month to look at easing New Jersey’s medical marijuana program and increasing the number of dispensaries. The bill would require the state to allow 12 new dispensaries to open, bringing the total to 18. None of the new dispensaries would be permitted to grow marijuana, which those now operating do. But if the patient registry increases from its current 16,000 to 270,000, the bill would permit up to three more growers and nine more dispensaries.

Patients seeking to take part in the program would have to pay a $50 registration fee, down from the current $200, while indigent patients would see the fee decrease from $20 to $10. Convictions for possession and sale of marijuana would no longer disqualify applicants who want to run dispensaries or provide marijuana to patients for whom they are caring — unless the conviction was for selling more than 50 pounds of the drug or growing more than 50 plants.

And doctors would no longer have to enroll in a registry to prescribe marijuana.

“You have physicians that can prescribe cocaine and morphine, but even though they went to medical school, they can’t prescribe marijuana,” Gusciora said.

Assembly members Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling, along with state Sen. Vin Gopal — all Democrats from Monmouth County — introduced a bill that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell cannabis oil. It would also remove the monthly two-ounce restriction on medical marijuana, allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell oils and remove a restriction that only allows them to sell edible marijuana products to minors.

The bill, NJ A 3421 (18R) is named “Jake Honig’s Law” after a 7-year-old boy who died of brain cancer last month. Honig, known affectionately as “Jake the Tank,” used cannabis oil to improve his quality of life, including cutting down on medications that had side effects. Downey said the boy’s parents were forced to make the oil themselves.

“The parents go and get the flower and they have to go through the whole process to make the oil themselves. They don’t know if they’re doing it the same way each time,” Downey said. “It alleviated the acid reflux, the vomiting, the nausea, all those terrible side effects.”

Democratic State Sen. Shirley Turner also introduced a bill, NJ S 1847 (18R) to exempt medical marijuana from the state sales tax.

Although many lawmakers favor full-scale legalization, Murphy — who also supports it — is facing the hard reality that the votes are not there in the Legislature at this moment.

Last week, state Sen. Ronald Rice, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he would put forward a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but that he opposes legalizing it.

Bill Caruso, a lobbyist and founding member of the pro-legalization New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, said the flood of bills easing marijuana restrictions are a good sign. He noted that Rice, who at last week’s press conference spoke positively about medical marijuana, voted against the law in 2009.

Caruso said he believes that for all the disparate ideas regarding marijuana right now, lawmakers could come together during the budget process on a larger agreement.

“As we see in many, many policy initiatives that have gone through the legislative process, June is the time of the year a lot of hard concepts are worked through,” Caruso said. “You have a proliferation of new legislation That shows me there’s an interest in getting something done here and that could all come together in the next couple months.”