The Legislature is fast-tracking a revised bill expanding the state’s medical marijuana program to Gov. Phil Murphy while the administration holds off on its own expansion plans in an effort to ease tensions over the move.
Assembly Bill and Senate Bill 20, which the lower house approved by 66-5 vote with 6 abstentions and the upper house approved in a 31-5 vote, retains many provisions of the original medical marijuana legislation.
“The medicinal uses of marijuana have been proven safe for years, and yet, in New Jersey we have arbitrarily restricted patients’ access since our program’s inception,” sponsor Sen. Joe Vitale, D-19th District said in a Thursday statement.
“In many instances, marijuana can be a safer and even more effective alternative to other pharmaceuticals, particularly in the case of opioids,” he added.
A20 would phase out the sales tax on medical marijuana, cutting it from 6.625 percent to 4 percent on July 1, 2020, then to 2 percent on July 1, 2021. The tax would be eliminated completely on July 1, 2022.
Any tax revenue from medical marijuana sales would be “exclusively appropriated to programs for the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders,” according to the bill. A prior expansion measure, Assembly Bill 10, would have retained the sales tax until January 2025.
The Assembly was slated to consider A10 earlier this month, but that vote was postponed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, who said he wanted more input from the governor.
A20 would also create a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Committee to oversee the state’s medical marijuana program. The program would be first overseen by the Department of Health before being transitioned to the CRC, but the legislation does not specify a timeframe beyond “such time as the members of the commission are appointed and the commission first organizes.”
A20 also sets the number of cannabis providers at 28 for the first 18 months, rather than the 23 proposed in A10. The 28 would include the six existing medical marijuana alternative treatment centers and the six the Murphy administration has been adding.
Those businesses are now “vertically integrated,” meaning they handle the cultivation, manufacturing and sale of medical marijuana. Although existing businesses would be grandfathered into the program, new entities could only engage in one component. So the bill would bar vertical integration.
The Health Department has proposed adding more than 100 new medical marijuana businesses, split between dispensaries, manufacturers and cultivation, a move criticized by lawmakers such as Senate President Stephen Sweneey, D-3rd District, who said such a rapid level of expansion was “uncontrolled” and detrimental to the emerging market.
As with A10, the revised measure expands the list of medical conditions eligible for the program and expands the definition of caregiver, as well as the kinds of professionals who can prescribe medical marijuana.
Hospices and nursing homes could be “institutional caregivers” in the program.
Patients could get prescriptions for up to a year’s supply, an increase from 90 days, also a carryover from A10. And patients could purchase their medication from any dispensary, rather than only from the ATC at which they are registered as required under current law.
A patient would only need one doctor visit a year, rather than four, to verify that they are eligible for the program.
The bill raises the cap on how much medicinal cannabis a patient can buy in one month to 3 ounces for 18 months, and an amount to be determined by the CRC after that.
A20 allows for employees of ATCs to make medical marijuana deliveries, rather than requiring the service to be carried out by third parties as A10 would have stipulated.
The measure also allows for cannabis consumption areas, which must be on the same property as the dispensary and can only be accessed by patients and their caregivers. The lounges would be restricted to outdoor venues in accordance with New Jersey’s indoor smoking laws.
Towns that host dispensaries could impose a maximum 2 percent tax on cannabis businesses.
Out-of-state patients could purchase medicinal cannabis in New Jersey for up to six months.
ATCs must submit proof that they have signed and continue to honor labor peace agreements with labor organizations, which would make union organizing easier for ATC employees.
The six existing ATCs would have 100 days from the bill’s enactment to produce such an agreement – so far the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge is the only one whose workers are unionized.
Businesses that cannot furnish the necessary documentation could have their ATC permits suspended or revoked.
Legislative leaders tried unsuccessfully to legalize recreational marijuana earlier this year, but cancelled the vote when it became clear they lacked the necessary 21 votes in the Senate.
Sweeney announced in March that lawmakers would push for putting the question of legalization before voters as a ballot question in the 2020 presidential election.
Murphy and the state’s top lawmakers were hoping for New Jersey to be the second state after Vermont to legalize marijuana through legislation, but were beaten to the punch last month by Illinois.