An expansive cannabis legalization bill in New Jersey is seen by some in the industry as a risky legislative gamble. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s S2702 would broadly expand the state’s medical marijuana program and legalize a regulated adult-use market, but the all-in approach could delay passage of cannabis legislation in the final days of the legislature’s budget season, which ends on June 30.
Whether or not Scutari can rouse support for his bill remains unclear.
“Legislators who are on board with the expansion of the medicinal [program] but not yet there on recreational—does this make them feel less comfortable voting for the bill? Basically, is it a poison pill?” Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey, told Cannabis Business Times.
At a time when states in New England and the nearby mid-Atlantic region are sprinting toward various styles of legalization and regulation, New Jersey’s fledgling medical marijuana industry is caught in a predicament.
“The concern is that you would be holding up patients,” said Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Although MPP would like New Jersey to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, it does not want patients caught in the political crossfire. “Given the fact that the bill might not pass right away, we certainly don’t want to hold patients hostage in getting their needs met for adult-use,” Bell said.
Scutari has also introduced S2703, the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act, which is a standalone adult-use bill to legalize the possession and personal use of marijuana for individuals age 21 and over and create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure. Assemblyman Jamel Holley has also put forth a standalone adult-use bill, A3819, which would also authorize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for those 21 and older.
Similarly, State Sens. Herb Conaway, Jr., and Joseph Vitale have introduced two standalone bills to expand the medical marijuana program in the form of A3740 and S10. Both bills attempt to revise the requirements for physicians to authorize qualifying patients and revise requirements for alternative treatment center operations and permitting, and A3740 goes as far as allowing medical marijuana to treat any diagnosed condition.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been supportive of marijuana policy reform in the state. “Gov. Murphy is looking forward to continuing talks with the Legislature on efforts to expand access to medical marijuana and legalize adult-use marijuana,” the governor’s press secretary, Dan Bryan, told Cannabis Business Times in an emailed statement.
On the medical side, MPP is urging the state to authorize more medical marijuana dispensaries to serve the growing patient base in the state, Bell said.
“There is already a supply crisis happening in New Jersey in the medical program,” she said. “They’ve expanded the qualifying conditions and eased some of the difficulties with patient access, which is all great, [and] some things have been done already by the Department of Health, but they need new medical businesses open yesterday.”
Scutari’s combined effort caps retail licenses at 218, but a sizable portion of those would be reserved for medical marijuana dispensaries, Houenou said.
The requirements for the renewal of medical marijuana cards should also be addressed through new medical legislation, Bell added. “New Jersey is the only state that requires patients to keep going back to their doctors over and over,” she said. “The current proposal is to change it from every 90 days to every six months—that’s still really not good enough. Every other state requires you to renew your medical card just once a year, … [or] even every other year.” This adds unnecessary cost and burden to patients, Bell said.
In addition, New Jersey’s current medical marijuana law requires vertical integration, Bell added, which may be a barrier to some contemplating opening a medical cannabis business. “These are different skillsets,” she said. “Someone who’s really good at cultivation doesn’t necessarily want to do the customer service side of retail, so it makes more sense to separate out the licenses, so you have growing, processing and selling separately.”
On the adult-use side, there is the question of expungement, Houenou said. Scutari’s bill allows people to immediately apply for expungement, but the process could be costly, complicated and burdensome for some, she said.
“New Jersey has a particularly lengthy, difficult and expensive expungement process compared to other states,” Bell added. “There’s a ton of paperwork that people have to go through. It’s more complicated than it needs to be. The Scutari bill allows people to apply for expungement, but they still have to apply. There’s not [a] provision for assistance of counsel, and it’s only for possession offenses. We would like to see it go much further to address the harms on people who have already been hurt by the war on cannabis.”
“What the ACLU has been pushing for is automatic expungement,” Houenou said. “It means that the state takes on the burden of finding records that need to be expunged and expunging them without requiring individuals to file paperwork or pay $200. That is currently not in the bill.”
MPP is also advocating for a more streamlined expungement process, Bell said, with no applications and tax revenues set aside to assist people with counsel and to hire the staff necessary to go through the files and expunge the records of those who are eligible.
The ACLU also advocates for low barriers of entry in an adult-use market, Houenou said. “We want to see low barriers to entry, low barriers to getting these jobs and these business ownership opportunities,” she said. “That means low application and licensing fees. It shouldn’t cost $50,000 just to apply for a license—that’s prohibitively expensive.”
The ACLU also wants people with prior criminal convictions to have an opportunity to secure cannabis business licenses in the state, Houenou added. The organization also advocates for home-grow provisions. “We know that Sen. Scutari is not a big fan of home-grow, but that’s a justice measure because there are people with limited mobility who shouldn’t have to be required to travel to dispensaries, and you have patients who need to grow the particular strains they need,” she said. “And even just from a liberties perspective, [if] it’s going to be legal to possess this plant, it should be legal to grow it, as well.”
Reinvesting money into community programs is another piece of adult-use legalization that is important to the ACLU, Houenou said, particularly in communities that have been most affected by the war on marijuana. “We want to see money fund things like education, re-entry services, job training, drug treatment and prevention programs, and other justice reinvestment initiatives.”
On June 18, the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey held an open forum in Paterson to address those very issues. With some form of legalization waiting in the offing in New Jersey, local leaders are joining the call for equitable cannabis policy.
“As a society that is looking for justice and fairness, we must wrestle with marijuana prohibition. There must be reciprocity for the communities that have been most harmed by prohibition,” Paterson Councilman William McKoy said.
An Uncertain Future
While some legislators are on board with the idea of adult-use and have embraced Scutari’s combined bill, others are not yet comfortable with full legalization but support expansions to the state’s medical program, Houenou said. For any piece of legislation to move forward, it will first need a committee hearing with a vote. So far, however, there have only been hearings for discussion where industry stakeholders, including the ACLU, have testified in support of or opposition to the legislation.
“Those hearings have been largely to get an understanding of what kind of issues we’re going to have to address—what issues need to be hammered out and further explored so that when we shape the legislation, we address any concerns, we close any loopholes, and we build a model that is sound and solid,” Houenou said.
Both the ACLU and MPP are hopeful that legislation will pass, although it remains unclear when that might be.
“I’m always cautiously optimistic that they will take the support of the Senate president and the governor and other political leaders in New Jersey and be able to translate that into a legalization bill that addresses these issues and is a good policy for New Jersey,” Bell said. “Certainly we’re hopeful that at least they’ll pass the medical expansion bill. The Department of Health did a lot to expand the program after [former Gov.] Chris Christie, who stifled it for many years, but there are certain things that are statutory that can only be changed by the lawmakers through regulatory changes.”
“What we can expect is that [passage of these bills] won’t be happening before June 30—for the end of our budget season—but Gov. Murphy has made it very clear that he wanted to see a legalization bill on his desk by the end of the calendar year,” Houenou said. “So, we may see some activity happening during the summer to try to hammer out details—making sure that our adult-use legislation is strong and is done right, making sure that the legislation properly captures racial and social justice—or it might take a little bit longer. We might have to wait until the fall.”
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