The state senator leading the charge on legal weed in New Jersey introduced a new bill Thursday that would bring recreational marijuana to the state while expanding the medical marijuana program.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari on Thursday unveiled a combined bill that aims to address the two biggest marijuana-related issues in New Jersey: an expansion of medical marijuana and full legalization of weed for adults. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, is also a prime sponsor, Scutari said.
This is the first bill introduced that combines the two efforts. Scutari’s bill calls for 218 total marijuana dispensaries, 120 of them recreational and 98 of them medical.
According to Scutari and a copy of the legislation obtained by NJ Advance Media:
* Municipalities may ban a dispensary from opening within its border, but the local governing body must pass an ordinance doing so within 180 days of the law’s enactment.
* The 7 percent sales tax on medicinal cannabis will be phased-out within three years.
* A dispensary may create a separate “retail marijuana consumption area” on the premises.
* A positive drug test cannot be used as the basis to deny a person medical care, housing or a job “unless failing to do so would put the school, employer, or landlord in violation of federal law or cause it to lose a federal contract or funding.”
Scutari, D-Union, also introduced another bill that only deals with making recreational marijuana legal for adults 21 and older.
James Nash, State House Bureau
NEW YORK— New Jersey lawmakers are on track to approve a law that ultimately could bring nearly 100 marijuana retailers to the state and spawn an $850 million industry, advocates said at a conference.
Months of stop-and-start negotiations and public forums are expected within days to yield a new bill to make marijuana legal for any 21-year-old New Jerseyan and further expand medical access to the drug, said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, which represents businesses looking to grow and sell marijuana in the state.
Speaking to more than 100 people at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition, Rudder said the outlines of marijuana regulation in New Jersey are coming into sharper focus a month before lawmakers must approve a new state budget. Gov. Phil Murphy, who has championed legal weed, is counting on $80 million in tax revenue from the drug in his proposed budget for the year beginning July 1.
Lawmakers are looking to revamp how tax revenue from legalized cannabis is incorporated into the state budget, following talks between the Democratic administration and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, an ardent supporter of marijuana legalization.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is currently eyeing a phased-in tax rate for recreational cannabis, according to state Treasury spokesperson Jennifer Sciortino.
The treasury’s newly unveiled revenue projections for 2019, released Monday, showed marijuana revenue lowered by $11 million, to $69 million, rather than the $80 million unveiled in Murphy’s March 2018 budget proposal. The tax rate would be phased in over several years, Sciortino said.
For 2019, the state would realize $49 million by taxing recreational cannabis, Sciortino said, while the projections from expanding the medical marijuana program would hold steady at $20 million.
Scutari’s proposal, Senate Bill 830, is the only one which seeks to legalize, regulate and tax recreational cannabis. It’s not certain if that’s the measure Murphy would support the most; a spokesperson for the governor’s office cited a policy to not comment on pending legislation before it reaches his desk.
S830 calls for the cannabis tax rate to be phased in over five years: 7 percent in the first year, 10 percent in the second, 15 percent in the third, 20 percent in the fourth and 25 percent in the fifth year and beyond.
But S830 is one of three bills making their way through the Legislature. Another, Senate Bill 1926, would decriminalize marijuana, but stops short of legalizing recreational use. It’s sponsored by Sen. Ronald Rice, D-28th District, a staunch opponent of recreational cannabis.
Rice, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said legalizing recreational cannabis will only worsen the social issues related to marijuana, such as the disproportionate incarceration rate for blacks and Latinos.
Legalization, Rice added, would also lead to more urban violence and fail to make a dent in the black market.
The third bill, Senate Bill 10, introduced May 21 and also sponsored by Scutari, would expand the state’s medical marijuana program by broadening who as a patient or caregiver would have access to medical cannabis, loosen requirements for alternative treatment centers and increase the quantity of medicinal cannabis available to patients.
This story is part of the HIGH HOPES series from the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, which sent journalists to Colorado & California to see how legal weed could impact the Garden State.
In a New Jersey where recreational marijuana is legal, cannabis could quickly overtake cranberries as the state’s No. 1 cash crop, the centerpiece of a new billion-dollar industry employing thousands.
From Jersey City to Atlantic City, residents and tourists — from New York, Pennsylvania and anywhere within a few hours’ drive — could flock to one of the new dispensaries, closer in appearance to a sleek Apple Store than a corner liquor store, to get their hands on the only legal weed in the mid-Atlantic.
But along the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, police officers would have to confront the challenge of catching stoned drivers without a reliable breath test. And at dinner tables across New Jersey, parents would grapple with the dramatic cultural change as their children grow up in a state where marijuana dispensaries are as ubiquitous as diners and rolled joints nearly as common as pork roll.
Journalists from the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey visited California and Colorado, two of the states that pioneered marijuana sales for both medical and non-medical purposes, to get a first-hand look, smell and taste at the future of legal weed in the Garden State. Watch one reporter’s experience in marijuana dispensaries in the video below.
“Now that I’m out here, I don’t really want to go anywhere where they don’t have legal marijuana,” said 36-year-old Ernie Falconer, a New Jersey native who moved to the Denver suburbs last year and immediately registered as a medical marijuana patient.
“It’s not such a taboo thing out here,” he said. “You don’t have to feel like a criminal just because you enjoy marijuana.”
DOH talks budget with Senate Budget Committee, explaining where funds go and what initiatives got lopped off New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has made major progress since Gov. Phil Murphy took the helm, adding more than 1,000 patients a month on average, many of whom would not have been able to qualify in the past.
And there will still be a need for medicinal cannabis — to treat children, in particular — even if the Garden State does, according to New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who testified Tuesday before the Senate Budget Committee. Legalizing adult use has been a priority for Murphy.
Elnahal said the medical marijuana program may also be able to play a greater role in addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, which contributed to nearly 2,000 deaths last year. And he confirmed after the hearing that he is considering expanding the cannabis program further to assist patients with certain substance-use disorders — something Murphy has also encouraged him to explore.
Marijuana and opioids
Research suggests greater access to marijuana may reduce the deadly impact of opioid addiction, Elnahal told the committee. “You see a reduction in opioid prescriptions. You also see a reduction in opioid mortality,” he said, recalling a recent American Medical Association report. Elnahal noted he has not yet seen data that suggest cannabis use reduces addiction rates, “but you’re seeing the causal chain in these studies.”
The medical marijuana program was one of several areas of focus for members of the Senate panel, which is reviewing each department’s spending plans as part of their consideration of Murphy’sstate budget proposal for fiscal year 2019, beginning July 1. The DOH’s $2.9 billion proposal — a mix of state and federal dollars — includes more than $1 billion for state psychiatric hospitals and community mental health programs, nearly $637 million in acute-care hospital funding, and $100 million for efforts to address opiate addiction.
As in past years, budget committee members asked questions about the state’s plans to distribute $252 million in hospital, which helps cover the cost of treating uninsured patients and traditionally pits urban hospitals, which generally receive more, against suburban and rural operations. (Expect more changes in the future, Elnahal said.)
Several senators also pushed Elnahal to defend his decision not to extend funding for legislative priorities that were included in the current budget — like a palliative-care pilot program in northern New Jersey that is a favorite of Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee chairman. (Tough choices had to be made, the commissioner noted.)
Medical marijuana a Murphy priority
But the conversation frequently turned to the state’s medical marijuana program, which critics said languished under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered cannabis a gateway drug. Murphy has prioritized revitalizing and expanding the program and, under his direction, the DOH released atwo months ago with some 20 recommendations to make the program more compassionate.
More than 5,000 new patients have enrolled in the program since January, Elnahal said, including some 2,000 who were able to qualify under the five new eligibility conditions that were added as a result of the March report. In all, there are now more than 21,000 Garden State residents participating, with some 600 physicians signed up to prescribe the medicine, and 900 registered caregivers who can assist patients. Among the reforms were changes that made it more, something critics said was needed.
In the past two months the DOH has also launched a mobile version of the online enrollment process, which advocates said was far from user-friendly, and has invested some $50,000 on a public relations campaign, with radio ads and social media features designed to reach both potential patients and additional prescribers. At one point in April, Elnahal said they were signing up nearly 100 patients daily.
Increasing cannabis supply
The DOH is also making progress to expand the program’s capacity, seeking to increase supply and also give patients more options in where to purchase their medicine. This was good news to Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), who said her office has been flooded with requests for more information, both from patients and prospective operators.
The state has six licensed (five operational) Alternative Treatment Centers — which grow, process, and sell the product. The department is drafting regulations that would allow greater flexibility in how this supply chain functions. Elnahal said the DOH also approved a request Monday by Garden State Dispensary, in Woodbridge, to open a satellite location — another option created under the March report. (Local approvals are still pending, so officials did not specify the new site.)
Cunningham also asked what impact legalizing recreational cannabis would have on the state’s medicinal marijuana program. Elnahal said that even with wider access there is a clear healthcare need for a clinically regulated program, which now includes guidelines for the maximum strength — something the DOH report urged easing — and strict growing and processing standards. In addition, he said the medicinal program is critical for children, who would not be eligible under the recreational initiatives envisioned.
“This program will need to continue. It will need to have the same regulation and tracking,” Elnahal said, noting that in Colorado — one of the first states to legalize recreational use — interest in the medicinal marijuana program remained “flat” after the new law took effect. “We will continue to need this program and support it,” he added.
The price of pot
Price remains a concern for many program participants, something Elnahal conceded was a problem. The DOH has cut the program fee in half, to $100, and many enrolled pay a discounted fee of $20. But patients must also obtain a prescription from a doctor, a visit that can cost well over $100 and is rarely covered by insurance, and purchasing the product can cost as much as $500 an ounce.
The high cost of the medicinal cannabis program also caught the attention of Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), who urged the DOH to explore using state dollars to help some patients afford this medicine. Singleton noted that Canada’s largest health insurance company added a medical marijuana benefit on March 1, which reports suggest will cover up to $6,000 of the drug.
Elnahal called these “really interesting ideas” and promised to follow up. Federal law currently prohibits the use of Medicaid dollars for cannabis treatment, since marijuana is considered to be in the same class of drug as cocaine and heroin — highly addictive and with no medicinal value. But the state is now pursuing, which would reduce the penalties associated with illegal sales and transport and ease the logistics of medical treatment for some patients.
“I think re-scheduling will allow a lot more flexibility” when it comes to production and, eventually, price, Elnahal said.
The issue of product cost also prompted Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex) to question the administration’s decision to include an extra $20 million in medical marijuana tax revenue in the proposed budget. Medicinal cannabis is now taxed at close to 6.6 percent and, while the March report urged the state to reduce this levy, the DOH officials insisted — based on current and projected growth — this was a highly conservative figure.
In fact, Elnahal said Michigan, which has a program that includes similar conditions, has enrolled some 100,000 patients. “We anticipate New Jersey could also get that high,” he said.
New Jerseyans should “assume” legalization of marijuana is coming and sooner than most think, according to experts and lobbyists at an NJ Spotlight roundtable on Friday. Right now, most of the discussion has been behind closed doors, as legislators count votes and visit other states that have already taken the plunge. Although Gov. Phil Murphy ran on a promise to legalize marijuana, and even assumed millions in tax revenues in his 2018–2019 budget, the discussion in Trenton has so far been pretty quiet.
That’s about to change, claimed panelists, almost all of whom were supportive of the legislation. They dived deep into the policy implications of legalization at the event in Hamilton last week, but the conversation boiled down to two opposing attitudes: If the state were to legalize, will New Jersey be acting as a national, certainly regional, model for other states? Or will it be a petri dish festering with unanticipated problems?
“I want to let other states be the Petri dish,” said panelist Frank Greenagel, a clinical social worker and representative from legalization opposition group NJ RAMP (Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy). “What is the rush? Wait till 2020. Wait till 2022. Wait till 2024.”
There are currently two major bills under consideration in Trenton that would legalize adult recreational use of cannabis,emanates from the Senate and is sponsored by Nicholas Scutari (D-Union); the Assembly version is A-3819. Another Assembly bill ( ) is also on the docket.
ATLANTIC CITY — On the Atlantic City Expressway, the new billboards are touting June 28 openings for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the Ocean Resort Casino, two mega-casinos that will replace the Trump Taj Mahal and the Revel.
Meanwhile, on Tennessee Avenue on Wednesday, Hard Rock executives won casino licenses from the Casino Control Commission.
And down the Boardwalk, in the faded but magnificent Adrian Phillips ballroom of the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, the mayor of Atlantic City was playing Springsteen, Sinatra, and L.L. Cool J (Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years), to declare an unusually optimistic State of the City: “We are opening the door to a new era.”
“I feel exuberant,” Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said. He said that there would be no tax hike in the city’s budget, and that he was hopeful that legalized marijuana would come to New Jersey, to be enjoyed in his town in an “adult district.”
“We’re looking forward to being one of the municipalities where you can come in and enjoy the plant,” he added.
It was a pointed bookend to the State of the City speech given in 2015, following the closures of four casinos in 2014, when Gilliam’s predecessor, Don Guardian, woke up to news that a unit of Caesars Entertainment had filed for bankruptcy.
“At least we’re not Detroit,” Guardian said, and then saw himself presiding over a city that teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and state oversight not unlike Detroit.