After months of false starts and delays, New Jersey took a big step toward legal weed on Monday, with lawmakers advancing a bill that would legalize the possession and personal use of marijuana.
Committees from both the state Senate and Assembly approved the bill, which now awaits a full vote in the Legislature before it could be signed into law by the governor.
After nearly four hours of debate in a hearing room packed with about 200 people, the bill cleared the Senate budget committee, 7-4 with two abstentions, and then Assembly budget panel, 7-2, with one abstention.
This is the first official action taken by the Legislature on recreational marijuana since Gov. Phil Murphy took office in January, in part on the promise to legalize marijuana. Prior to Monday’s hearing, no bill legal weed bill had made it past introduction.
“This process has been a long one,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, who has led the charge for legalization in New Jersey. “I started talking about this 15 years ago.”
Despite the committee action on Monday, legalization is not assured.
Even the supporters of legal weed agree that New Jersey’s plan could still use some work, so it remains possible that legalization could bleed into next year as lawmakers continue to tweak the legislation. The only remaining day this year where the Legislature is scheduled to be in session is December 17.
“They’ve made good progress, but there are still changes that need to be made,” said Dianna Houenou, a senior policy advisor with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who spoke in support of legalization. Houenou said she wanted to see improvements to language in the bill about expungement and other social justice issues.
Scutari said Monday that the bill remains a work in progress will be changed before it gets a floor vote. It has already been amended since it was introduced last week.
The legal weed bill, which was unveiled last week, would legalize the possession and personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana for people at least 21 years old, and create, regulate and impose a 12 percent tax a commercial marijuana industry in the state. An extra 2 percent excise tax could be raised for towns which host cannabis businesses.
The legislation also aims to speed up the expungement process for people who have prior arrests and convictions for possession or distributing small quantities of marijuana. Within six months of the law’s enactment, the Administrative Office of the Courts must create an electronic filing system for expedited expungements, a concept that has been the linchpin of social justice debate this year.
The main tension in the hearing on Monday was social justice versus money.
“This is still being sold under the auspices of social justice, but it’s about money,” said Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, who has long been opposed to legalization. “It’s not about social justice. It’s about money for white investors.
“It’s a slap in the face to people like me and people of color.”
But several lawmakers on the committees later pushed back on that idea, citing the state’s racially disproportionate marijuana arrest rate.
An ACLU report from last year found that black people are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates between the groups.
“Do you have a solution that’s better than our current legislation?” Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, asked a group of law enforcement officials about fixing the racially disproportionate arrest rate. If they did have a solution, they did not share it before the committee.
Other opponents of legalization mentioned health concerns associated with marijuana, along with one of the more confounding issues that accompanies legalization: driving while high. Inconsistent and sometimes flawed data regarding marijuana DUIs.
But in the end, final passage of the legal weed bill may well come down to the balance of social justice and money. Houenou and other advocates, along with several key lawmakers, have said they wouldn’t support the bill if its social justice elements, like expungements and minority participation in a future industry, were too weak.
On the other hand, Murphy has indicated he might not support a bill unless it had what he concerns an acceptable tax rate. Murphy wants 25 percent, the new bill calls for a 12 percent tax.