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.
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.
New Jersey residents who want cannabis as an alternative to traditional medicine and the thriving medical marijuana industry eager to serve them stand to gain the most from Wednesday’s announcement that state lawmakers will let voters decide whether to legalize weed in 2020.
The decision to abandon a long-debated bill to legalize recreational pot in favor of a voter referendum clears the way to finally overhaul New Jersey nine-year-old medicinal marijuana law, which frustrated patients and growers see as too expensive and restrictive.
Hearings on the stalled legislation may be held as early as next week, said one of the bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex said. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, vowed to deliver the bill to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk before the end of June.
For months, Sweeney prevented the state Legislature from voting on the bill expanding the medical program (S10) until he could get enough votes for the recreational marijuana bill (S2703). But on Wednesday morning, Sweeney conceded he had no choice but to abandon that strategy because too many Democrats in his caucus remain steadfastly opposed legalizing recreational marijuana.
Hours after Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign vow to enact a bill legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey went up in smoke, the Democratic governor said Wednesday he had a “mixed reaction” and that he was still “trying to digest the pieces.”
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced earlier in the day he’s ending efforts for the state Legislature to pass the bill and instead will ask voters to decide in November 2020 whether to make pot legal.
It’s a blow in the ongoing, often-dramatic battle to make New Jersey the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana. Legalizing pot was a major plank of Murphy’s 2017 campaign, and he and his fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature saw a voter referendum as a last resort.
Murphy said he did like that Sweeney, D-Gloucester, plans to move forward in the coming weeks on a pair of related bills — to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and to expunge the records of residents with past convictions of possessing small amounts of pot.
“But the devil will be in the details,” Murphy said at an unrelated public event at the East Windsor Senior Center.
“It’s hard to do it legislatively, I admit,” he added. “It’s always been a default to go to a referendum and ask the people.”
New Jersey’s top state lawmaker announced Wednesday he’s dropping efforts to have the state Legislature pass a bill that would legalize marijuana in New Jersey.
Instead, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said, lawmakers will ask the state’s voters in November 2020 to decide whether to make weed legal here.
In the meantime, Sweeney added, lawmakers will move forward with two related bills that would “dramatically” expand the Garden State’s medical marijuana program and expunge the records of residents with past convictions of possessing small amounts of pot.
The announcement is a major blow in the more than year-long, ever-changing battle to make New Jersey the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana — a signature campaign promise of Gov. Phil Murphy.
Murphy and his fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature spent months trying to gather enough votes to pass the bill that would make recreational marijuana legal for people 21 and older. They viewed a voter referendum as a last resort.
But Sweeney said they simply couldn’t secure enough support in the Senate, the Legislature’s upper house.
“There’s no sense dragging this out,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton. “I’m disappointed.”
“We did our best,” he added. “The votes just aren’t there.”
Sweeney said he expects voters to approve the ballot question next fall. Polls show a majority of New Jersey residents support legalizing pot.
“If you believe any of the polls, we’ll be successful,” he said.
Still, you might not be able to light up legally until sometime in 2021 because the state would need some time to set up the new industry.
Talk has gotten increasingly louder in Trenton lately that New Jersey’s leaders are losing hope they’ll be able to secure enough votes in the state Legislature to legalize marijuana and may have the state’s voters decide at the ballot box instead.
But Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday he hasn’t given up on passing the bill, even though he admitted a voter referendum is a possibility.
“We came very close to this not that long ago,” Murphy said during an unrelated news conference outside his office in Trenton. “It just didn’t get there.”
“The referendum has always been out there as an option,” the Democratic governor added. “Only one state has done this legislatively. That’s Vermont.”
“We have felt that this is a better way to go,” Murphy continued. “It takes more courage. It’s a tough vote for many. We understand that. That’s still, in my opinion, the preferred route. I want to exhaust that with legislative leadership before we talk about a plan B.”
Even before Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, skipped a meeting with the governor on Thursday, the prospects of legal weed in New Jersey weren’t looking good.
Lawmakers hadn’t been able to wrangle the votes for legalization and told NJ Advance Media they were starting to lose hope that it could get done anytime soon. But just because weed won’t be legal in New Jersey doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay illegal.
State Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, told NJ Cannabis Insider this week that if lawmakers don’t vote on adult-use cannabis in the coming weeks that he would demand a vote on marijuana decriminalization.
Rice, who has been one of the strongest opponents of cannabis legalization in the state, worked with an anti-marijuana group to write and introduce a cannabis decriminalization bill last year.
After more than a year of stops and starts, hope is dimming for New Jersey’s leaders to convince enough state lawmakers to vote for a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, NJ Advance Media has learned.
Instead, the chances of letting Garden State voters decide whether to make pot legal have increased in recent weeks — most likely in a ballot referendum in the 2020 November elections, according to six legislative and industry sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.
And if the issue does go before voters then, that means New Jerseyans may not be able to partake in legal weed until sometime in 2021.
Some sources say a new development has added to uncertainty: the increasingly heated street fight between Gov. Phil Murphy and allies of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — two top Democrats who must work together to get pot passed — over tax incentives doled out by New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority.
A task force convened by Murphy has been investigating whether corporations misused the breaks in past years, including one company owned by Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, a close ally of Sweeney.
And that has made the already strained relationship between Murphy and Sweeney even more tense, at a critical point in the fight for legal pot, according to sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the situation.
Some lawmakers say they haven’t been given enough time to study measure that would legalize marijuana in NJ. Here’s a comprehensive analysis of its contents.
Adult-use marijuana legalization is likely to be voted on by the entire state Legislature as soon as early next week. But since the bill was finalized Monday night, many lawmakers are concerned they haven’t been given enough time to thoroughly digest and assess its major points. What’s more, this measure is the first of its kind in the country and if it passes, could become model legislation for other states looking to legalize and set up a functioning cannabis economy. The ten other states that so far have legalized marijuana have done so by a ballot referendum or, in Vermont’s case, by legislation that didn’t allow for regulated sales.
The current proposal was released hurriedly from committee and comes in at 176 pages. With accompanying medical and expungement bills, the entire package comes close to 300 pages. It’s not clear whether there will be enough votes to approve the bill, which requires 21 in the Senate and 41 in the Assembly for passage. While Gov. Phil Murphy has been hitting the phones to drum up votes in support of the legislation, it’s unknown how steadfast the opposition is, whether they have been holding out their support due to principle or just looking to horse-trade.
Among legislators reportedly leaning towards “no” votes, Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) said a lack of transparency is keeping him from supporting the bill.
“All three of these bills are complicated,” Bateman said at the hearing Monday before abstaining from voting. “This is going to really change the dynamics in New Jersey … do you really think we can digest this?”
The legislation — which contains over 20 changes from the previous version — was last up for a public hearing in November 2018 and even then, public testimony was restricted. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee declined to hear public testimony, sending a packed room of New Jerseyans home. On the Assembly committee side, public comments were limited to three minutes.
Measure could come to floor vote next week, but some pols disturbed over irregularities during hearings, raise concerns about ‘good governing’
After hours of closed-door meetings, vocal opposition from the Republican delegation, and severely limited public testimony, state lawmakers voted the newly amended marijuana bill out of both Senate and Assembly committees late on Monday night. The final vote count in the Senate Judiciary committee was six yes, four no, one abstention, and in the Assembly Appropriations committee the bill was voted out six yes, one no and two abstentions.
“Marijuana prohibition has failed,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor. “This bill will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market so that it can be controlled, regulated, and taxed, just as alcohol has been for decades.”
The bill, called the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act,” would legalize adult possession or use of one ounce or less (28.38 grams) of marijuana and set up a system for taxing and regulating the new cannabis economy along with expunging the records of those who have been convicted of minor marijuana offenses. Now that it has left committee, the bill will head to the full legislative floor for a vote as early as next week. If it passes, New Jersey will be the first state in the country to legalize, tax, and regulate a cannabis market through legislation.
With such a weighty task before them, some lawmakers expressed their distaste for the process by which the bill was heard in committee: hearings delayed for six hours, bills being printed even as the vote was being counted, members of the public sent home and told there would be no testimony heard.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) a strong opponent of legalization, took issue with the vote itself noting that three voting members, Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) left votes despite not being physically present at the 7 p.m. hearing.
Before the year ends, a new cultural landscape could take hold in New Jersey if marijuana is legalized for anyone 21 and over.
New dispensaries would spring up around the state — many more than the six that currently exist and that cater only to medical patients.
Cannabis would also be delivered to customers’ doorsteps, similar to an Amazon package, according to the latest legalization bill.
Indoor and outdoor “consumption lounges” would be created, though none would be allowed on college campuses.
Casinos in Atlantic City and hotels could designate 20 percent of their space for guests to use marijuana.
And towns that welcome marijuana businesses could reap financial rewards that come with the potentially multimillion-dollar industry by imposing a tax of up to 3 percent.
It all hinges on whether lawmakers approve a roughly 200-page bill that some say may reach the floor for a historic vote, perhaps as soon as March 25.
“Clearly we have rounded a corner. I feel good about it,” Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the chief architect of the state’s “Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act,” said in an interview Thursday.