How Did Cannabis Legalization Stall in New Jersey?

(bigapple/iStock)

When Phil Murphy became New Jersey’s governor earlier this year, it marked a dramatic shift from his predecessor: Out with the conservative cannabis-hating firebrand Chris Christie, in with the liberal cannabis-friendly ex-diplomat.

Murphy’s inauguration raised the expectations of many cannabis advocates to new heights. The Democrat campaigned hard on marijuana reform. On the trail, Murphy said he hoped to legalize recreational cannabis in New Jersey within his first 100 days in office.

“It would seem difficult to mess up marijuana in New Jersey. But rest assured—Trenton will find a way.”
Steven Fulop, Jersey City mayor

Those 100 days expire on April 26, 2018, and it’s looking like cannabis advocates may have raised their expectations a little too high. Because something predictable happened on the way to Trenton: Opposition hardened, the Democrats splintered, the GOP went backwards, and the short-term odds for legalization dimmed.

“With control of three branches of government and a sentiment towards progressive policies, it would seem difficult to mess up marijuana in New Jersey,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop told Leafly. “But rest assured—Trenton will find a way.”

While the state’s long-languishing medical cannabis program will probably see some much-needed improvements, Fulop may be right about adult-use legalization. Less than two months into Phil Murphy’s term as governor, it’s looking like cannabis prohibition isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

RELATED STORY
New Jersey’s Primary Was a Huge Win for Legalization. Here’s Why

On Monday, the Assembly’s Oversight Committee heard from experts on cannabis legalization, the first action taken in the Assembly on marijuana since new Democratic Speaker Craig Coughlin took over leadership of the chamber this year.

“I’m going to let the committee do its work and I’m going to look at what they’ve done,” Coughlin told the Associated Press prior to the hearing. “Certainly on my own I’ll start to look at the issue and do what we can to get it right.”

Yesterday’s hearing came as Gov. Murphy is drafting his first budget, which he will unveil later this month, and as he tries to make good on promises to ramp up education and pension spending. Murphy has estimated that marijuana legalization could bring in roughly $300 million in revenue for the state. That’s just a fraction of what he would need to finance his proposals, though the governor cautions that he won’t fulfill his pledges “overnight.”

RELATED STORY
NJ Court: Medical Cannabis Benefits ‘Abundant and Glaringly Apparent’

What Happened to Legalization?

Legalizing cannabis legislatively within 100 days of taking office was an ambitious goal to begin with. It was a catchy soundbite that allowed Murphy to contrast his policies and values with Christie, then a wildly unpopular lame duck governor. Murphy’s opponent in the general election, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was seen as a protégé of Christie’s.

One influential Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation for legalization soon after Murphy took office.

The legislation is identical to a measure introduced in the previous session that legalizes the recreational use of marijuana for those at least 21. It permits possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form, 7 grams of concentrate and up to six immature plants.

RELATED STORY
New Jersey Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Legalize Cannabis

The legislation would establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, charged with regulating the industry. The legislation also would establish a sales tax on marijuana that would rise incrementally from 7% to 25% over five years to encourage early participation, Scutari said.

“Decriminalization does not achieve the racial and social justice goals that our legislators and Gov. Murphy have expressed.”
Dianna Houenou, ACLU of New Jersey

Scutari’s bill hasn’t received the fast-track reception Scutari and others hoped for, though. And it’s the party in power—the Democrats—who seem to be the main obstacle.

It’s an open secret that Trenton’s top legislator, Senate President Steve Sweeney, is gunning for Murphy’s seat in 2021—even though they’re both Democrats. The tension between Murphy and Sweeney (who had a famously close relationship with Christie) is real. Sweeney has said he supports Murphy on legalization. But the growing friction between the two Trenton powerbrokers complicates everything.

Then there was a mini-mutiny within Murphy’s own party over the wisdom of legalization itself. Some Democrats are currently weighing their options. “I’m still researching it,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), who is widely seen as leaning in favor of legalization. State Sen. Bob Gordon, a Democrat, said he’s a no, for now. Republicans look reluctant to get on board. Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. is opposed.

The strongest backlash to Murphy’s legalization policy came from a handful of African-American legislators led by state Sen. Ron Rice, Sr., of Newark.

RELATED STORY
This One Chart Captures Everything Wrong With NYC Cannabis Arrests

Rice allied himself with a group called RAMP-NJ, which is closely aligned with Kevin Sabet’s SAM school of reefer madness. They’ve got a glossy new website and a blue-chip spokesperson named Jeanette Hoffman, a seasoned Trenton lobbyist and public relations pro who owns her own firm, Marathon Public Affairs. (Hoffman declined to respond to Leafly’s requests for comment about RAMP-NJ.)

The public’s view of legalization seems mixed. A February Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll showed 42% favor legalization, while roughly equal percentages of people backed either the status quo or only decriminalization. That poll surveyed 801 New Jersey residents and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 points.

A September 2017 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59% of residents approved of marijuana legalization. The poll surveyed 1,121 voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.

Sen Rice, who has historically voted against all cannabis-related reform bills, is now pushing a sort of marijuana decriminalization bill (S1926) that “requires substance abuse treatment under certain circumstances” and includes hefty civil fines up to $500.

Proponents of adult-use legalization see the decrim bill largely as a device meant to derail the movement toward fully regulated legalization.

RELATED STORY
New Jersey Bill Would Dial Back Governor’s Legalization Promise

“Decriminalization does not achieve the racial and social justice goals that our legislators and Governor Murphy have expressed,” Dianna Houenou told Leafly. Houenou is policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey. “It still leads to arrests if people can’t pay fines,” she said. “It does nothing to take marijuana off the street or prevent access to children. And it does nothing to create jobs or generate revenue to pay for much-needed community programs. We can achieve these goals with a well-constructed legalization bill that keeps racial and social justice at its core.”

Assemblywoman Quijano chairs the powerful Assembly Judiciary Committee, a perch she uses to emphasize the social justice side of this debate. That’s why she’s drafting an expungement bill to nullify cannabis convictions “as soon as” cannabis is either decriminalized or legalized.

There’s no number associated with this bill as it’s not yet posted. But Leafly got a sneak peek. [Ed. note: A draft version of the bill is embedded at the end of this story.]

“Expungement will be granted immediately,” Quijano’s office told Leafly via email.  “In addition to marijuana possession offenses, persons who have been charged with using marijuana concentrate or marijuana infused products may also apply for expungement. Current statutes do not speak to these two products.”

RELATED STORY
California Scrambles to Speed Sluggish Expungement Process

What’s Next?

Bill Caruso is a Trenton super-lobbyist. He’s very pro-legalization.

Caruso noted the shifting landscape that led many Garden State lawmakers to reconsider their prior positions on cannabis. The anti-cannabis side has conceded so much ground that they’re now fighting for decrim and expanded medical access.

“The silver lining is there’s new support for decriminalization that wasn’t there before,” Caruso told Leafly. “But also efforts like medical marijuana expansion which Senator Rice previously opposed. This represents a sea change in opinion towards marijuana reform.”

Caruso is eyeing Gov. Murphy’s upcoming March 13th budget address for clues about what’s next. Budgets reflect priorities, and “if cannabis doesn’t come up in Murphy’s budget address, that’s a bad sign” for legalization’s prospects this year.

RELATED STORY
New Jersey Gov Signs Order to Expand Medical Marijuana Access

What About Medical Cannabis?

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, which went live under Chris Christie, suffered from Christie’s malign neglect during his tenure. But there’s legislation in the works to fix it. And, finally, a supportive governor.

“Governor Murphy is committed to expanding the New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Program and to making the program more responsive to patients, physicians and dispensaries,” State Department of Health Spokesperson Donna Leusner told Leafly.

“Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 6 on Jan. 23 directing the Department of Health to conduct a review and issue a report within 60 days on all aspects of the Medicinal Marijuana Program. A report recommending changes is due to the Governor on March 24. The report will include an evaluation of the current program with a focus on regulatory, statutory and other changes that will remove obstructions to expansion.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) is eagerly awaiting the department’s findings and recommendation. He’s the prime co-sponsor of A3437, a bill that would directly address perennial concerns like price and accessibility for patients. The bill considers the needs of sick people who are forced to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles put in place by Chris Christie.

“Let’s lessen that burden,” Gusciora told Leafly. “Let’s start there.”

RELATED STORY
What Makes a Medical Cannabis Program Succeed?

Gusciora’s legislation would end the arduous practice of recertifying chronic conditions to stay in compliance with state law. That ongoing level of over-regulation, a vestige of the Christie era, forces patients to recertify their qualifying condition every 90 days.

“No one with MS or HIV should ever have to recertify their condition,” Gusciora said. “That’s an insult to sick people.”

Gusciora’s bill also slashed NJ’s registration fee from $200 to $50. That eye-popping $200 pricetag is another piece of Christie’s anti-cannabis legacy.

Assemblyman Gusciora’s bill also triples the number of medical dispensaries allowed in New Jersey, while pegging future licensing directly to the growth of the state’s patient registry.

State law currently allows only six medical cannabis dispensaries statewide, an astonishing number given New Jersey’s population of nearly 9 million. Only 5 dispensaries are currently serving patients. To provide some scale, Arizona, with 7 million residents, has about 110 dispensaries serving patients around the state.

RELATED STORY
Cannabis Jobs Count: Legal Marijuana Supports 149,304 Americans

Gusciora told Leafly he timed this bill so that when Gov Murphy’s Health Department releases their findings, there’s good legislation already in the pipeline.

“We’ve reached out to Governor Murphy and are in constant contact,” Gusciora added. “Early indications are that’s where the Governor is headed and we want to meet him there.”

Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Maywood) co-sponsored Gusciora’s bill.

“We can move medical marijuana legislation early on while the new governor enjoins the fight for full legalization,” Eustace told Leafly “Let’s remove these extra doctor visits. Let’s expand the products available. And most of all let’s get more dispensaries online. That’s what’s prompted this flurry of bills addressing New Jersey’s broken medical marijuana program.”

 

The full text of Assemblywoman Annette Quijano’s cannabis expungement bill:

New Jersey Cannabis Expungement Bill by Rep. Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth) by Ben Adlin on Scribd

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Jay Lassiter’s award-winning podcast Heroin Uncut: The Truth About the Crisis is on iTunes and Google Play.  You can binge Season 1 in less than 3 hours. If you’re a lawmaker or a chief of staff or a legislative aide, this especially means you!