New Jersey Lawmakers Set Up March 25 Vote on Cannabis Legalization
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New Jersey Lawmakers Set Up March 25 Vote on Cannabis Legalization

With a recreational bill headed to floor votes next week, what are the chances that New Jersey will legalize cannabis?

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March 20, 2019

New Jersey lawmakers have advanced a pair of adult-use legalization bills out of committee, and now the stage is set for full floor votes on March 25. The road to cannabis reform has been more visible in New Jersey than in other states over the past 12 months, but certainly no less volatile.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 6-1 to approve what’s been titled the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act; the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 to approve its version of the bill.

The two committee hearings took about eight hours each on March 18, and it’s still not clear how the full legislature will vote on this matter. A vote is expected March 25.

The Assembly version of the bill picked up amendments during the March 18 hearing that will further clarify the legislation’s mandate to expunge past cannabis convictions and broaden the scope of its social equity policies.

"There have been far too many people, especially those from Black and Hispanic communities, who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis," said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) in a public statement. “I became interested in legalization due to the inequalities in the enforcement of cannabis laws and their long-term impacts on the lives of all people in this state, but considerably those of color. It is time we listen to the will of the majority of New Jerseyans and take a common-sense approach to regulation of cannabis. This bill is a huge first step."

Broadly speaking, the bill includes the following provisions:

  • Legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older. The bill will allow the possession and personal use of one ounce or less of cannabis.
  • Establish a five-member commission “to oversee the development, regulation and enforcement of activities associated with the personal use of cannabis,” according to the Assembly Democrats, as well as with the state’s medical existing medical marijuana program (which presently includes 12 licensed businesses).
  • Tax cannabis sales at a flat rate of $42 per ounce, $21 per half-ounce, $10.50 per quarter-ounce and $5.25 per eighth. (Essentially, the tax rate will fluctuate with price. As prices drop, the tax rate will rise.) Local municipalities may also levy additional taxes on retail sales and wholesalers. Tax revenue will be funneled to a cannabis regulatory fund that will develop state industry standards.
  • Dismiss all pending cannabis convictions of possession up to five pounds. Employers would not be able to consider any past cannabis convictions during the hiring process. The state will develop a related expungement process with the New Jersey Supreme Court.
  • Set up a task force to study the impact of cannabis use on drivers. Additional public safety provisions will focus on student education.
  • Generally, reduce the $127-million annual cost to enforce current cannabis possession offenses. 
  • Create an Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans and Women Business Development “to promote diversity in the marketplace ensuring women, minorities and NJ veterans a seat at the table,” according to the Assembly Democrats.

"This is possibly the largest regulatory undertaking the state has considered since the casino commission and even more possibly, since the prohibition era," said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) in a public statement. "The components of this bill listen to New Jersey residents who are not happy with the status quo and would like to move the state in a direction more compassionate for cannabis for medical use and discreet personal use. This bill is the start of the process."

Bill Caruso, a founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana, told Cannabis Business Times that the past year, especially, of cannabis reform debate has involve the need for social equity provisions. The way the cannabis industry has developed in fits and starts in the U.S. has shown that successful markets include these policies from the get-go.

“The way I’ve looked at this is sort of a juxtaposition against what New Jersey has done and has been doing to what New York hasn’t,” he said. “A lot of that’s attributable to five years ago, when the first legalization efforts were happening around the country and most folks that were examining those efforts realized they were missing a lot of things, including racial and social justice reform. … Fast-forward to where were are in New Jersey, we’ve built a pathway forward through racial and social justice reform with organizations like New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, led by the ACLU and the NAACP and other organizations—Drug Policy Alliance and other groups like that—that have built a platform here first on racial and social justice reform, based on expungement of criminal records and fairness in the industry. 

“The demand was for the need to address racial and social inequalities,” Caruso said, “not just to legalize cannabis.”

The progress on this legislation comes more than a year after Gov. Phil Murphy was inaugurated. As he took office, he made sure to put cannabis legalization front and center in his policy platform. Now, lawmakers are beginning to line up with his vision.

“We’re going to have to put everything into this,” Murphy told Insider NJ. “There is only one state in America that has done this legislatively. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of this. We’re not only expunging and undoing a whole lot of social injustices but creating a new industry. This is not an easy lift.” 

And geographic pressure is mounting: New York is considering its own path to adult-use legalization, and Connecticut is confronting a bevy of bills in the state legislature. Pennsylvania, which also shares a border with New Jersey, will take up an adult-use bill this year, too. And already, nearby Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont have legalized adult-use cannabis.

In New Jersey, full floor votes are expected March 25.