Long-awaited legal cannabis bill up for vote today

Daniel J. Munoz//November 9, 2020//

Long-awaited legal cannabis bill up for vote today

Daniel J. Munoz//November 9, 2020//

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Lawmakers are set to vote Nov. 9 on a long-awaited set of bills legalizing, taxing and regulating adult-use recreational marijuana.

Their introduction comes after voters on Nov. 3 overwhelmingly approved cannabis legalization in a two to one margin.

Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders had been hoping to avoid putting the measure before voters, but agreed to it after two years of unsuccessful bill negotiations in the halls of the state capital.

One measure – Senate Bill 2535 – was amended to decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of marijuana and distribution of up to one ounce. First offenses would be met with a warning, and a $25 fine for any following offenses.

Another proposal being looked at Monday would do largely the same: decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis or 5 grams of hashish.

Meanwhile the 206-page Senate Bill 21 – dubbed the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act – will be voted on at the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m.

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

Its lower-house counterpart, Assembly Bill 21, will be voted on at the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee at the same time. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, could not be reached by phone over the weekend.

The bill lets adults 21 and up buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Local towns and cities have 180 days from the bill’s enactment to ban cannabis stores. Home cultivation would not be allowed.

Under S21, a five-member Cannabis Regulatory would oversee the recreational market, as well as the existing medical marijuana market. The CRC has the power to grant, refuse and revoke licenses, investigate violations and aid in prosecution, set standards for cannabis research in the state, and oversee the industry as a whole.

The governor on Friday picked Jeff Brown as the CRC’s executive director. Brown oversees the existing medical marijuana program, which services almost 100,000 patients.

Murphy also tapped Dianna Houenou, a senior advisor within the governor’s office and long-time advocate of racial justice with an extensive resume in criminal justice reform, to chair the commission.

He has two more picks, while another pick is reserved for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District. Only one other member was named before Friday – South Jersey-based social worker Krista Nash, the wife of Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash and the pick of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District.

S21 would allow the state’s medicinal marijuana license holders – of which there are 12 – to open two more cultivation sites.

Murphy said that the recreational cannabis market could take up to a year to get up and running, but an expansion of the existing medicinal dispensaries could fast track at least part of the market’s set-up.

“God willing within a year you’re able to have a retail experience, potentially sooner, potentially as well, in the medical dispensary side, only if Jeff and Diana are convinced that there’s sufficient supply such as we don’t eat into what it is there for the medical patients,” the governor said at a Friday event.

Scutari contended in late October that the state’s existing dispensaries could open their doors to the recreational side of the business once legalization was underway.

But Brown warned that such a scenario could be unrealistic, and that many of them still struggle to meet the demand of nearly 100,000 patients taking part in the program.

The supply chain has been a particular problem, both among the existing dispensaries, and with the future held up in court for many medical cannabis dispensaries.

Many other provisions of the bill are carried over from the extensive bill which moved through the state Legislature in 2018 and 2019.

For example, the bill calls for licenses for growers, wholesale, distribution and transportation, processors such as manufacturing and preparation, retail, and delivery.

The bill also calls for a quasi-license for medicinal and recreational cannabis testing facilities. And it sets no limit on the number of licenses.

Employees would need to get certified by the CRC to actually handle cannabis. Dispensaries can set up consumption areas, either outdoors or indoors, and meant for densely populated urban areas.

The bill calls for 15% of the licenses to go toward people of color, and another 15% towards women and veterans. Micro Businesses – operations with 10 or fewer employees – will make up 25% of the industry.

License applications from impact zones – those with high arrest, crime or unemployment rates – would be given priority consideration. There are four municipalities that would meet the proposed requirement of more than 100,000 residents: Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Elizabeth.

Priority would also be given toward applications where long-time residents – those living in New Jersey for at least five years or within one of these impact zones for at least three years – have a controlling stake in the business.

Proponents argued steps like these were vital to ensuring a racially equitable market, and ensuring the market is represented by local residents.

“It must protect patient access, reflect the diversity of the state and invest revenue into the communities most harmed by prohibition,” Houenou said on Friday.

Marijuana transactions will be subject to the 6.625% sales tax, while municipalities can impose an additional 2% tax for their local coffers. That’s a far cry from the double-digit proposals previously considered, including a proposed tax rate of $42 an ounce, which was proposed last year. Washington by comparison has the highest tax rate at 37%.

Tax money, as well as licensing fees and other penalties, would go toward the costs of the commission, and training costs for local “Drug Recognition Experts” – police officers who would be trained to recognize drivers under the influence of marijuana.

Advocates argued that the money should instead go toward minority communities which they say have felt the brunt of cannabis prohibition – African American and Latino communities, and primarily through disproportionately high levels of policing and arrests.

“This bill does nothing for racial and reparative justice and is a slap in the face to all the communities hard by the drug war that deserve real support and investment to address the wounds of prohibition,” Brandon McKoy, president of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said on Twitter over the weekend.

The sales tax as the main source of state cannabis revenue meant the state could only take in “a paltry amount of funds,” McKoy added.

“The bill was posted Friday less than 24 hours ago, giving the public zero business days to review 200 pages,” the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said on Twitter over the weekend. “More to come as we complete our review, but it seems key racial and social justice provisions need strengthening or are missing.”