The state Legislature is holding off on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana and instead will let voters approve it in a ballot initiative during the 2020 presidential election, a route which the Murphy administration and legislative leadership were ultimately hoping to avoid.
An attempt will still be made to approve two bills by June 30 that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program and set up the process for expunging cannabis-related criminal offenses.
“We aren’t going to go forward with adult-use marijuana at this time, it’s something I believe strongly in, but the votes aren’t there and we can’t hold back progress,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said at a Wednesday morning press conference.
“We want to move forward to help transform the state’s medical marijuana program and to achieve the progressive reforms for social justice,” he said.
Sweeney said he is confident the ballot question will pass if it is put before voters in the 2020 presidential election, even though Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, and Gov. Phil Murphy were hoping to approve the measure through legislation.
The three cancelled the March 25 vote on the recreational, medical and expungement bills when it became apparent the state Senate did not have the 21 votes needed to pass.
“I’m disappointed that we are currently unable to pass the adult-use cannabis bill. I agree with the Senate president’s decision to move ahead with a bill to fix the flaws in the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and make medical marijuana more accessible to patients who could benefit from it,” Coughlin said in a statement.
“For many suffering from critical and chronic illnesses, increasing access to medical marijuana will mean the difference between being able to participate in life or having to suffer every day with intense pain and debilitating symptoms,” Coughlin added.
A ballot question in the 2019 election would be out of the question, Sweeney said since elections, where Assembly races are top of the ticket, have among the lowest voter turnout, and the electorate tends to be older and generally opposed to legalization.
“The ballot question just tells us ‘it’s to be done’, the legislation will be worked out, before or at least while we’re getting ready to do it,” Sweeney said, adding that he expects marijuana to be legal as soon as 2020 if the ballot is approved.
Sweeney said that Murphy’s announcement in mid-March to drastically expand the state’s medical marijuana program, in part, sabotaged the success of the package.
“When they announced the expansion of medical it just ended any chance of this,” Sweeney said. “We made it clear to the administration that any discussion about the expansion of medical would kill recreational.”
The governor announced in late March that if the bills did not pass, his administration would go ahead with plans to ramp up the medical marijuana program so that it could accommodate 200,000 patients by 2022, up from the 46,000 current enrollees.
That would entail the addition of 50 to 90 new dispensaries statewide in the next three years.
Earlier this week, the administration announced it was loosening the rules with the medical marijuana program, so that it would entail fewer hoops for patients to jump through, lower participation fees and set up separate permitting processes for dispensaries, manufacturing and cultivation.
“When they announced the expansion of medical, it just ended any chance of this [passing],” Sweeney said.
“The pressure was taken off” of lawmakers on the fence about approving the recreational marijuana bill, he said.
Sweeney has often called Murphy’s proposed medical marijuana expansion a “back door to recreational” or “de facto legalization.”
The Murphy administration’s 2020 budget, which starts July 1, calls for $60 million of revenue from the taxation of recreational marijuana – $21 million of which would go towards the one-time set-up of the bureaucracy to regulate the cannabis market.
State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio, in her testimony before budget lawmakers Tuesday said that the $60 million was still in the budget, which was met by skepticism from lawmakers that the recreational bill could be approved before June 30.
Murphy introduced $80 million in the budget during talks last year but took it out shortly before he signed the measure when it became apparent that lawmakers would not send him a legalization bill.
The medical marijuana bill, known as Senate Bill 10, would expand the number of medical marijuana dispensaries and ensure a certain number of licenses are awarded to women, people of color and veterans.
S10 would allow “any physician, physician assistants, advanced practice nurses and other health care providers, to prescribe cannabis for a wider range of conditions,” according to a statement from the Senate Democrats Office.
The measure would also phase out the sales tax on medicinal marijuana, enact workplace protections for patients and lift the cap on how much medical marijuana a patient can own at once – from one to three ounces.
Sweeney said he envisions changes to that measure, but declined to elaborate.
The proposed $42 an ounce tax on recreational marijuana – called for in Senate Bill 2703 – is already out the window; meaning lawmakers and the administration will need to hash out a new tax rate.
Sweeney said the amount was too high and would push consumers into the black market where the costs would be considerably cheaper.
“I thought it was too high… it was a compromise to get the bill done, but now that there’s not a bill and it’s going to a constitutional amendment, we are going to adjust things,” Sweeney said.
Sweney said he plans to have talks with Coughlin about pushing the expungement measure and the medical marijuana bill through the lower house.
The expungement measure, Senate Bill 3205, would need to be altered, Sweeney said, because lawmakers were spooked by the current proposal that would let expungement for anyone convicted of possession of up to five pounds of marijuana.
‘Five pounds is not just [possession], you’re not just being arrested for possession, it’s distribution, normally there are weapons charges, there are other charges that go with it,” Sweeney said. “But we absolutely have to adjust that statute. Five pounds is way too much.”
The Senate Democrats office, in a statement, said that S3205 would set up a process for expungement, expand the categories of people eligible for expungement and allow expungement of third and fourth-degree convictions of controlled dangerous substances.
“The legislation would establish a “clean slate” expungement which would allow someone ineligible under the new provisions to apply for expungement,” the statement adds. “The individual would be eligible 10 years from the date they were released, completed probation or completed parole, whichever came last.”
“I am pleased to learn the Senate President also plans to act on legislation that would revise the procedures for expunging records of certain marijuana-related convictions,” Coughlin added.
“Broader regulation around expungement will give thousands of New Jerseyans the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate making it easier to gain employment, buy a home or get a loan,” he said.
The assembly speaker was not present at the Wednesday press conference, Sweeney said, because the assembly already has the votes – but Sweeney plans to keep Coughlin deeply involved with crafting the legislation.
Coughlin said he is reviewing both measures with plans to move them ahead in the Assembly.