The state Senate cancelled its upcoming Thursday voting session, which would have included a pair of bills to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and set up an expungement process for low-level marijuana offenses. But, the Assembly vote is still on for both measures.
It is not immediately clear why the session was cancelled. The next soonest Senate session is May 30.
This comes as lawmakers have declared that a bill legalizing recreational marijuana for adult-use is dead, and will most likely go before voters as a ballot question in 2020.
Gov. Phil Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, agreed in March to a cancel a vote on recreational marijuana after it became apparent that the Senate did not have the votes needed for the bill to pass.
Then last week, Sweeney declared that he still did not have the votes in the Senate, and would instead put the question of adult-use cannabis before voters in the 2020 presidential election.
Lawmakers in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday approved a measure that would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and institute a $50 fine in its place.
Anything between two ounces and one pound would be a disorderly persons offense with a first offense carrying a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a $1,000.
A Senate version has yet to be introduced, and Sen. Joe Vitale, D-19th District, said lawmakers have been eyeing merging the decriminalization and expungement bill.
Sweeney has remained frosty about decriminalization, saying that it could become a backdoor to legalization.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, maintained that the measure is not a decriminalization bill, but rather one that would “re-grade” crimes surrounding marijuana possession. Her measure was abruptly pulled from the Assembly Judiciary Committee’s voting list, only to be tucked into the voting list of the afternoon Assembly committee.
“We’re going to be meeting the Administration Office of the Courts and the attorney general and the Assembly…will be meeting with the Senate… to talk about making this the best bill that it could be,” Quijano told reporters Monday afternoon.
The medical marijuana legislation, known more commonly as the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Act, garnered the unanimous approval of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Monday morning, and a single dissenting vote from the Assembly Appropriations Committee the same afternoon.
“The state is about to take a major step in the evolution of how medical marijuana is available to our citizens,” Assembly Appropriations Chair John Burzichelli, D-3rd District, said before holding the committee vote on the measure. “There is clear proof of the value of having this choice available to people. We’re touching up, doing statutorily housekeeping today to make sure that happens in a fashion that lets people who need help get it,” he added.
If the measure is passed by both the Assembly and Senate, and then signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, it would legalize edible and oil forms of medical marijuana, allow patients to purchase up to three ounces of cannabis a month, eliminate the sales tax on medicinal purchases in 2025, and allow towns that are home to ATCs to levy a 2 percent transfer tax on them.
“While the bill’s not perfect … this is still light years ahead of our present program, and it’s at a time when it’s exactly appropriate,” Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District, said before casting his vote Monday morning.
“But there are no deal-killers in this bill,” he added.
O’Scanlon introduced his own legislation that would bump the monthly cap for patients to four ounces, and create a pilot program to let patients grow cannabis at home.
Senate Bill 10 would cap the number of cultivators allowed in the state at 23 for the first 18 months following the bill’s enactment, including the six existing alternative treatment centers.
Microbusinesses, which the bill would establish to encourage New Jersey residents to take part in the market, would be exempt from this provision. Under S10, at least 25 percent of licenses have to go to microbusinesses, which must be entirely owned by New Jersey residents of at least two consecutive years, with at least 51 percent of the owners or employees living in the municipality – or in a neighboring town – where the dispensary would be located.
A set percentage of licenses must also go to women, veterans and people of color.
Dispensaries would be allowed to have up to three satellite locations under the new amendments. The measure already allowed for the home-delivery of medical marijuana, and Monday’s amendments would allow a patient to make orders online for those purchases.
S10 also sets up separate licenses for wholesale, cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing of medicinal cannabis, a carryover from the recreational marijuana legislation. This would be rather than vertical integration, in which the business has to be responsible for all of those tasks.
The legislation would grandfather in existing medicinal dispensaries and make them exempt from the new provision.
A doctor would be able to prescribe up to a year’s supply of cannabis, raised from the current 90-day limit. Patients could also purchase medicinal cannabis from any ATC in the state, whereas current law only allows patients to buy from the specific dispensary with which they are registered.
Another provision carried over from the recreational bill is the creation of the powerful five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which would oversee medical marijuana regulations instead of the state health department.
The Legislature’s potentially more reigned in medical marijuana expansion could likely set up a showdown with the Murphy administration, which unveiled plans in March to ramp up the state’s medicinal marijuana program so that it could accommodate 150,000 additional patients on top of the existing 46,000 participants.
That extra accommodation would entail the addition of between 50 and 90 new dispensaries over the next few years, according to the health department.
Like the legislation, the Murphy administration’s proposals would set up separate permitting processes for cultivation, dispensing and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, on Monday the Senate committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a measure allowing the expungement of low-level cannabis-related offenses.
The proposal would cut down the wait-time before someone could apply for expungement, set up an expedited expungement process and create an online “e-filing” system for expungement petitions. The legislation also calls for a “clean slate” program that would erase all offenses for anyone who has gone at least 10 years with a clean record.
The new bill would categorize possession of between one pound and five pounds as a third degree offense. The law would let anyone charged with possession of up to five pounds, before the law takes effect, to apply immediately for expungement, or wait 18 months if they are charged after the law takes effect.
The measure puts a three-year waiting period in place for anyone with a criminal record of possessing more than five pounds of cannabis. Anyone with cannabis offenses on their record would be protected by “virtual expungement,” meaning that any marijuana offenses could not be used as reason to deny them financial services, educational or career opportunities.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated after originally stating that lawmakers on Monday had approved a measure that would decriminalize possession of up to two pounds of marijuana. It is two ounces.