Marijuana Legalization on Track for Monday Vote

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union. Photo by Carmen Natale

A measure to legalize the possession and recreational use of limited amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older has been approved by two legislative committees, setting the stage for floor votes in both chambers on Monday.

The legislation, called the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act,” outlines how to organize and regulate a new cannabis industry, who would benefit from it and by how much, and sets social reform as a key target. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with a vote of 6-4-1 on Monday night. A panel of the Assembly Appropriations Committee also moved the bill by a 6-1-2 vote.

With both committees’ nod, New Jersey edged closer to becoming only the second state after Colorado to establish regulations for marijuana use as an act of the legislature. If the measure is voted through and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, it would become the 11th in the nation to approve adult, recreational use of marijuana that permits the cultivation and sale of cannabis, joining Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan.

On Wednesday at noon, a spokesman for the Senate Majority Office emailed the new board list for Monday with the bills to be voted on by the full Senate, and the marijuana bill was on it. A spokeswoman for the Assembly Majority Office said the Assembly had the marijuana bill on its board list for Monday as well.

The committee approvals earlier this week didn’t come easy or early. There were several hours of “fine-tuning” by legislative staff on the bill, and discussion by lawmakers as to whether the measure was even going to come up at all on Monday.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained how little time he and his colleagues had to digest the contents of the expansive bill before voting on it.

“Asking us to form an opinion without seeing the full details of the bill is an incredibly irresponsible way to govern,” Bateman said in a release Monday at 3:45 p.m. The Senate Judiciary Committee would eventually vote on it just a little over four hours later.

Murphy and legislative leaders had teased the rollout of the anticipated legislation on March 12 after announcing they had reached a tentative agreement on its core principles. They were in tandem on the bill’s mission to not only create a new revenue source for entrepreneurs, municipalities and the state, but also a blueprint for social equity. But the details were still a work in progress.

A key component is a provision championed heavily by the governor to expunge minor marijuana offenses for certain individuals, in large part to aid minority communities that have seen a disproportionately high number of such convictions. The revised bill lists “dismissal of all pending marijuana charges and convictions for up to five pounds.” An individual would be able to file a petition for expungement at any time under the legislation's terms.

The marijuana recreational use bill, S-2703, includes other social justice reforms, including the designation of “impact zones” with preference for new cannabis businesses, and incentives for minorities, women and disabled veterans to participate in the nascent industry. The revised bill states that 30 percent of adult use and 30 percent of medical use licenses are encouraged to go to minority, women, or veteran communities.

“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 statement after the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted on the Assembly version of the bill, A-4497. "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,” said Quijano, who is chairwoman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “This bill is a huge first step.”

The cannabis industry in New Jersey will have its own growers, processors, wholesalers and retailers with the potential to create thousands of new jobs in sales, production and related services, proponents say. Like any major industry, it is expected to be an economic engine for the state.

“Marijuana prohibition has failed,” said Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the prime sponsor of S-2703, with Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, in a statement. “It is time to end the detrimental effect these archaic drug laws are having on our residents and make adult use marijuana legal."

Scutari said the estimated $127 million the state currently spends to enforce marijuana laws could be used by law enforcement to combat other, more serious crimes.

“This bill will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use,” said Scutari, who also authored the law creating New Jersey’s medical marijuana program. “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.”

Sweeney, the Senate’s co-prime sponsor, said the legislation “represents a significant change in public policy that will have a real-life impact on social justice, law enforcement, the economy and the lives of people in communities throughout New Jersey.

“We developed a thorough and thoughtful plan that will put in place rules and regulations that allow for adult use cannabis in a responsible way,” Sweeney said. “As a regulated product, legal marijuana will be safe and controlled.”

Under the bill, cannabis would be subject to an excise tax of $42 per ounce, imposed when marijuana is cultivated.

Municipalities that are home to a cultivator or manufacturer can choose to receive the revenue from a 2 percent tax on growers and processors, 3 percent for retail operations, and 1 percent for wholesale facilities.

A five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission would govern the cannabis law and operations and adopt all regulations to govern the industry. The commission would include three members appointed by the governor and one each recommended by the Assembly speaker and Senate president.