Lawmakers, Murphy strike deal on legal marijuana bill

Daniel J. Munoz//December 7, 2020//

Lawmakers, Murphy strike deal on legal marijuana bill

Daniel J. Munoz//December 7, 2020//

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The governor and legislative leadership struck a deal late Friday on a set of bills creating a legalized cannabis industry within New Jersey, setting the stage to fast-track the legislation to the governor’s desk before lawmakers leave for winter recess in two weeks.

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, jointly announced the deal on Friday evening, along with bill sponsors Sen. Nick Scutari, D-22nd District and Assemblywoman Anette Quijano, D-20th District.

“Last month, New Jerseyans voted overwhelmingly in support of the creation of a well-regulated adult-use cannabis market,” reads the joint Friday evening statement.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District – NJBIZ FILE PHOTO

“We’re proud to announce today that we’ve reached an agreement on legislation providing the framework for legalization, which is a critical step in reducing racial disparities and social inequities that have long plagued our criminal justice system.”

Both the Assembly and Senate have scheduled full-floor votes in each of their respective chambers on Dec. 17, after which the bills would head to Murphy’s desk for his approval. Committee votes will be held over the two weeks before then.

Although voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot question amending the constitution to legalize cannabis on Jan. 1, talks between the Assembly, Senate and governor’s office broke down on how to spend the tax money and whether to cap the number of cultivation licenses.

The Assembly and Senate committees passed their own versions of the legalization bill – Assembly and Senate Bills 21, but they never moved ahead for a full floor vote. 

Meanwhile, the decriminalization proposal – Assembly Bill 1897 – which was meant to act as a stand-in for legalization, stalled in the Assembly because of a proposal to downgrade offenses for psilocybin, known as “magic mushrooms.”

The psilocybin provision will instead be broken off into its own bill – Assembly Bill 5084 – allowing the decriminalization bill to move forward. Possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana would be lawful, under the decriminalization bill moving through the state Legislature.

Under the ballot question, the state would legalize recreational cannabis for use by anyone over the age of 21, set up a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee the new market, and tax sales at the standard 6.625% sales tax rate.

Another tax rate, coming out to a fraction of a percentage, would be levied onto the state’s cultivators, bringing the total tax rate to 7%.

Under the Friday deal, all of the tax money on cultivators and 70% of sales tax revenue from cannabis 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.

Lawmakers and the governor agreed to set a cap of 37 cultivation licenses for the first two years of the cannabis industry.

Scutari said the cap on the number of cultivators would help the state avoid a market saturated with cannabis products.

“We want to have the right amount of product,” he said. “These cultivators that have already been” involved “have invested large sums of money into this market.”