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.
Senate Bill 2703, the 147-page New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act, would legalize the personal use and possession of cannabis for those 21 and over and create the state’s first taxed and regulated cannabis industry.
Sens. Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Nick Scutari, D-22nd District, sponsored the bill.
Licensees under the new bill could be cultivators, processors, wholesalers, or retailers. The bill also allows for micro-licenses, providing an opportunity for small businesses to enter the new market.
Taxation on cannabis would be 12 percent with the bill, with a 2 percent additional tax to go to municipalities that are home to dispensaries. The taxation rate has been one of the main sticking points in getting legislation done. Sweeney wants to cap the tax at 12 percent, saying anything higher than that will push buyers back into the black market. Gov. Phil Murphy is said to want the tax rate to be higher.
The bill also creates a framework for expungement for those with prior arrests and convictions for possession or distribution of an ounce or less of cannabis. An additional expungement bill was released Wednesday and also will be voted on Monday.
Senate Bill 2426, the 67-page New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, revises various parts of the 2009 Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act, and is sponsored by Vitale, Scutari, and Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District. It allows advance-practice nurses and physician assistants to authorize patients for medical cannabis, and redirects the oversight of medical cannabis to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission created in S-2703.
“The posting of the bills is incredibly good news for New Jersey’s burgeoning cannabis industry. While details remain to be negotiated between the governor and Legislature, it is clear that New Jersey will soon join the ranks of states that have legalized cannabis,” said Lee Vartan, co-chair of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC’s cannabis law group.
Vartan is a former executive assistant attorney general who played a significant role in CUMMA, establishing and overseeing the regulatory regime that governs the state’s current medical marijuana dispensaries.
The state Legislature is set today to take up, and possibly vote on, a comprehensive bill that would make recreational use of cannabis by adults legal in the Garden State
Almost a year after Gov. Phil Murphy took office promising to legalize adult recreational cannabis use, the state Legislature is planning to take up the issue today in both the Senate and the Assembly.
Lawmakers have released a proposed bill that covers issues from taxes, requirements for retail, wholesale and distribution, conditions for locations and persons eligible for licensure, the role of law enforcement and even specifications for marketing. The 152-page document is called the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act.” Committees are expected to hear testimony and vote on it as early as this afternoon.
The billhas been amended since its first introduction and finally been released after months of closed-door negotiations. The legislation in the Senate is sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union). In the Assembly, it is A-4497 sponsored by Assembly members Annette Quijano (D-Union), Jamel Holley (D-Union) and Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex). Another bill in the Assembly (A-4498) would deal with expungements of related criminal records in more detail.
The reasons for the legalization of cannabis, according to the bill, are principally to “strike a blow at the illegal enterprises that profit from New Jersey’s current, unregulated illegal market” and also to use the tax revenue generated “to bolster effective, evidence-based drug treatment and education, and to reinvest in New Jersey communities.”
“New Jersey cannot afford to sacrifice its public safety and civil rights by continuing its ineffective and wasteful past marijuana enforcement policies,” the text of the bill reads.
Priority for Democrats
Legalizing adult-use cannabis has been a priority for Democrats during this legislative session as they were unable to make any headway under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. They’ve cited data showing cannabis arrests cause extensive harm to communities of color and that arrests take up significant law-enforcement time and resources in the state.
The nearly year-long slog to have a multi-billion-dollar legal marijuana industry in the Garden State takes a major first step Monday.
State lawmakers will begin to debate a recently unveiled bill that would pave the way to making New Jersey the latest state to legalize recreational marijuana.
The measure has been debated privately in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature for years, but never stood a chance of becoming a reality under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who stood in staunch opposition.
But with a change in leadership 10-months ago in Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on legalizing cannabis, lawmakers are finally set to put the process in motion.
Public discussion on the 147-page “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act” begins Monday, followed by legislative votes to push the measure to the next step in the process: a full vote on the floors of the state Senate and Assembly.
Recreational use on agenda, along with significant expansion of state’s medicinal cannabis program.
Lawmakers plan to return to Trenton after Thanksgiving to vote on long-awaited proposals to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana in New Jersey and expand access to the state’s medicinal cannabis program. Among the most notable changes for medicinal marijuana is one that would allow any physician — not just those who register — to prescribe cannabis for any diagnosed condition, not only those already prescribed by law or state policy.
The controversial legislation to legalize pot possession and personal use by residents over the age of 21 — the subject of widespread attention over the past year — is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday, following months of wrangling by supporters to secure sufficient support.
But also on the agenda for both the budget committee and the Senate health committee are two bipartisan bills that would plug myriad gaps in New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program, a popular initiative with broad legislative support. These would eliminate the current 6.6 percent sales tax on medicinal marijuana over three years, and significantly reform how it can be prescribed. While these measures were introduced months ago, and one was the subject of an, they have stalled while legislative leaders amassed votes for the legalization plan.
After months of delay and backroom disputes, state lawmakers are expected to finally begin voting next week on legalizing marijuana for adults over age 21 in New Jersey.
And it’s getting the fast-track treatment, even though legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Murphy remain at odds over details of the legislation.
Separate state Assembly and Senate committees will meet together for a hearing of debate and are expected to vote on the legalization bill on Monday, Nov. 26 at 10 a.m., according to sources familiar with the plan.
The negotiations over the legalization bill (S2703) have stalled in recent months between state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Murphy, who have disagreed over the tax rate and whether a new commission should exercise control over the new industry.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he and the Democratic governor have not agreed on the bill. But he said he didn’t want to wait any longer.
“We have been talking, and it’s time to move forward,” Sweeney told NJ Advance Media Monday night. “Hopefully, we can get to agreement with the governor.”
Sweeney said he favors imposing a 12 percent tax rate, plus 2 percent for municipalities that are willing to host cannabis-related businesses. He doesn’t want to go higher because he fears that it will allow the illegal market to thrive.
Michigan just passed a 10 percent tax rate, Sweeney noted.
Michigan’s marijuana tax rate is comprised of a 10 percent excise tax and a six percent sales tax, according to published reports.
Murphy — as well as legislators who supported earlier versions of the legislation — have sought a 25 percent tax rate. Murphy has declined to say publicly how much he is willing to budge.
A source familiar with Murphy’s side of the negotiations said Murphy and the Legislature are at “an impasse.”
“They haven’t entertained our proposals or sought to meet us in the middle,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A spokeswoman for state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, could not be reached for comment Monday night.
On his call-in radio program Monday night, Murphy said he awaits a final version of the bill from lawmakers.
One of the most strident opponents in the state Senate to legalizing marijuana said Thursday he is now “leaning yes,” and predicted enough Democrats will change their minds and make one of Gov. Phil Murphy‘s top priorities a reality.
Political insiders have said the “adult use” marijuana legislation has enough support in the 80-member Assembly to pass, but the reluctance of a handful of Democratic senators has stalled negotiations all year.
Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex and a prime sponsor of a companion bill to expand the state’s medicinal marijuana program, said he is likely to vote yes to legalizing weed for people 21 and older.
“In the end, the pros will outweigh the cons,” Vitale told NJ Advance Media.
Sweeney has said he would not allow the bill to proceed until he knew he had a minimum of 21 “yes” votes, and preferably within his own party. Vitale’s support could be a sign the Senate is closing in on that number.
At League of Municipalities conference, it’s clear that getting votes for tokes is going to take more than just lining up legislators.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney has drawn a line in the sand regarding adult-use marijuana legalization, but local leaders have their own recommendations and concerns.
“We’ll have (a bill) out of both committees by the end of the month,” Sweeney told reporters at the League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City, meaning a legislative debate on the subject could begin within days.
Hours before Sweeney made that announcement, local leaders gathered at the conference to hear recommendations from several members from the League’s marijuana taskforce. They were not overwhelmingly optimistic about legalization efforts. Mayor after mayor stepped to the microphone during the question-and-answer period to decry the process and ask for more details on what is still a nebulous bill. They said they’ve heard little to assuage their fears about tax rate, law enforcement, and potential expungements — among other issues.
Appearing Wednesday at the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said they want the vote out of committee by the end of the month.
“If we don’t have an agreement on a piece of legislation, then we’re not going to put a bill on [Gov. Phil Murphy’s] desk,” said Sweeney, D-3rd District.
“We put together a bill [and] we’re going to look to get that placed in a committee this month,” added Coughlin, D-19th District. “We’ll work hard to see whether we can get that passed. We certainly have the votes to get that out of committee.”
There currently are three bills pending in the Senate on marijuana: one to expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program; one to legalize, tax and regulate adult-use cannabis; and another to handle expungement and other social justice aspects.
There are no Assembly versions of the bills.