Full NJ Legislature to vote Thursday to legalize, tax marijuana

Daniel J. Munoz//December 15, 2020//

Full NJ Legislature to vote Thursday to legalize, tax marijuana

Daniel J. Munoz//December 15, 2020//

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The full Assembly and Senate are set to vote Thursday on a landmark bill that would legalize,  regulate recreational marijuana for adults.

As during a Senate hearing Dec. 14, lawmakers at the Assembly Appropriations Committee assured that they could reconvene in the near future to grapple and address any issues that crop up in this entirely new market.

One of the key upper house sponsors, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said Monday that “we will be back in a year or two saying there was an unintended consequence. And we’ll fix that.”

Should the measure – Assembly Bill 21 – pass, it would be the end of a years-long political battle for a milestone Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on achieving within his first 100 days of office. It was approved in a 7-4 vote along party lines during the Tuesday Assembly Appropriations Committee session.

The measure hit a snag in recent weeks over where to allocate tax money, how employers can ensure their staff is not under the influence at work, and whether to cap the number of cultivators in the early years of the market.

New Jersey voters on Nov. 3 overwhelmingly approved a ballot question amending the state constitution to legalize marijuana as of Jan. 1

The bill calls for a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee the new market, as well as the existing medical marijuana market.

That commission, according to Bill Caruso, a partner at law firm Archer Greiner, needs to handle a significant chunk of many issues being raised in the state Legislature, such as what kinds of social service programs are financed by tax money from the cannabis market.

“That is the purview of a regulatory body, to really get into the weeds,” Caruso said. “We need to get that in place,” and “tweak and finetune” the law in the future.

“There will be a subsequent budget process, there will be a subsequent regulatory process.”

Licenses for cultivators are capped at 37 for the first 24 months following the bill’s enactment. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, said the cap would help prevent an oversaturation of the market in its early years.

Seventy percent of sales tax revenue and all the money from a tax on cultivators – which comes out to a fraction of a percent – would go toward legal aid, health care education and other social services for lower-income, minority communities that have felt the brunt of the War on Drugs.

The remaining 30% in sales tax revenue would go toward the CRC and to compensate local police departments for the training of “Drug Recognition Experts,” who would be tasked with determining if someone is under the influence of marijuana while driving or at work.

Employers must have a “reasonable suspicion” that their workers are high on the job in order to conduct a drug test. And the test must be accompanied by an assessment from a DRE to ensure the person’s behaviors match someone who’s high.

That would allow workers to use marijuana while off the clock, just as with alcohol.

During the Tuesday hearing, Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, questioned the scientific validity of DREs.

“Can you use them for employment law in order to take disciplinary action? What happens if an employee who is impaired causes harm, and it can be significant harm given some of the safety-sensitive occupations out there.”

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-3rd District, who chairs the committee, said on Tuesday that matters such as the DREs would need to be fine-tuned.

“We’re going to have to feel our way through this in the workplace,” he remarked. “In the short-term, the lawyers are going to be busy as this gets sorted out.”

With medical dispensary applications stalled in court, the future of the market could be thrown into further disarray, meaning the administration or state Legislature would need to take further action, Burzichelli said.

“A lot of people made an investment into the processing of applications and the courts said it wasn’t done correctly.”

State leaders such as Murphy contend that patients dependent on medical marijuana need to be prioritized before shifting to the recreational market.