New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy will decide on a historic bill legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana for adults and setting up rules for the industry, after both chambers of the state Legislature sent him the measure Thursday afternoon.
The 240-page Assembly Bill 21 passed by a 49-24 vote with six abstentions in the lower house, and a 23-17 vote in the state Senate.
“I can’t think of anything that will have broader impact for New Jerseyans and I can’t think of something more sensible for New Jerseyans,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari, D-22nd District. “We’ve been trying to arrest our way out of a problem we created ourselves for a naturally occurring substance that’s been around for thousands of years.
Murphy’s office did not immediately return several email requests for comment on whether he would assign or approve the measure. But the governor did campaign on achieving marijuana legalization within his first 100 days of office.
“This bill to legalize cannabis is a strong commitment to social justice,” said the sponsor of A21, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District. “This bill establishes measures to make the cannabis business diverse and equitable.”
The debate on racial justice through cannabis legalization became a bitter point of contention over the past several years. Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, has disputed legalization efforts, arguing that they’re a vehicle for Wall Street financial interests rather than racial equality.
His feud with Scutari boiled to a head on Thursday, when the two engaged in a heated shouting match for several minutes over whether the bill would actually achieve any degree of racial equality in the state.
New Jersey voters on Nov. 3 overwhelmingly approved a ballot question amending the state constitution to legalize marijuana as of Jan. 1.
Scutari on Thursday was adamant that the bill needed to be signed by then, otherwise the state could face a “constitutional crisis… if we don’t pass the rules and regulations today.”
“You’re going to have the constitution saying it’s legal and we’ll have no regulations,” he said on Monday.
The bill calls for a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee the new market, as well as the existing medical marijuana market.
Many public officials – such as Murphy – have argued that the process of setting up regulations and awarding licenses means New Jerseyans could be waiting up to a year before they could buy cannabis at a nearby store. The medical marijuana population, Murphy argued, would be the first priority.
Licenses for cultivators are capped at 37 for the first 24 months following the bill’s enactment.
Scutari argued that the cap would help prevent an oversaturation of the market in its early years. Cannabis sales would be taxed at 7% – which includes the 6.625% sales tax on retail sales, and a tax on cultivators, which brings the rate up to 7%.
Scutari and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District warned that tax rates need to be kept as low as possible to force the black market out of business. A deal in 2019 that was eventually abandoned would have taxed cannabis at $42 an ounce.
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.
Sen. Steven Oroho, R-24th District, said he was still uneasy about ensuring drug-free workplaces for safety-sensitive job positions. It can show up in a test weeks after usage, and professions such as utilities, commercial drivers and construction still need to maintain what is known as a “drug-free workplace.”
“[W]orkplace safety, through the establishment of drug-free workplaces, is absolutely essential for certain safety-sensitive occupations,” Ray Cantor, an executive vice president at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said in a Thursday statement.
“This bill now falls short on those critical merits by relying on certified experts whose training are not based on scientific standards.”
Many sponsors argue that lawmakers and regulators, in the near future, would have to revisit the legalization measures to tweak any issues that arise, like workplace safety.
Another measure approved, Senate Bill 2535, ends arrests for possession of up to six ounces of cannabis, while Senate Bill 3256 would lower penalties for possession of psilocybin, more commonly referred to as “magic” mushrooms.