NJ tightened up its legal weed roll out with distribution decriminalization measures and tax reallocation to neglected communities.
In November, New Jersey voters approved the statewide sale of cannabis by a two-to-one margin. Today, New Jersey lawmakers passed a measure setting up a recreational marijuana marketplace in the Garden State.
The bill will next be sent to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who promised to legalize in 2017 and is expected to pass the bill. Murphy’s signature will be the final stamp of approval needed to roll out a legal cannabis market in the Garden State.
The Democrat-led Assembly and Senate passed the bill during sessions that were held remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
New Jersey joins 15 other states and the District of Columbia with recreational marijuana.
Following up the Nov. 3 legalization vote
The amendment allowing recreational use for adults 21 and older goes into effect on January 1, 2021, but it may take months to see dispensaries, thanks to the sticky icky web of social and legal concerns on lawmakers’ plates.
Even though voters overwhelmingly support the bill, it took a handful of late amendments to push it through every level of state government. Clutch additions to the bill include tax and law enforcement provisions that support citizens and communities most affected by the failed War On Drugs.
Despite the strong support from voters, lawmakers passed the bill on comparatively narrow margins: 49-24 with six abstentions in the Assembly, where 41 votes are needed, and 23-17 in the Senate, where 21 votes are needed.
If enacted, the legislation sets out a timetable that could see recreational cannabis available in New Jersey in about six months.
Social justice issues in play
Critics of November’s bill wanted to see more restorative justice provisions and a large part of the compromise is a creative new tax structure. Seventy percent of the 7% sales tax placed on cannabis products will go toward communities where marijuana laws were disproportionately enforced in the past. The other 30% would go to the statewide budget.
Support for legalized marijuana in New Jersey centered on what Murphy and advocates called social justice – correcting years of uneven application of marijuana prohibition which led to Black residents facing charges more frequently than white people.
“This will usher in a new era for social justice by doing away with the failed policy that criminalized the use of marijuana,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the bill’s lead sponsor.
Mixed reviews on harm reduction
There are still many activists and entrepreneurs who are still not satisfied with every element of the 200-plus-page bill. It still does not lower penalties for growing cannabis, despite advocacy from medical marijuana patients who want the legal right to grow up to six plants. Other states allow medical patients to grow their own supply.
Democratic state Senator Ronald Rice, who is Black, has long worried that legalization will leave Black businesspeople out to the benefit of large, white-run firms.
He and Scutari sparred during the remote vote Thursday. After Senate President Steve Sweeney admonished the lawmakers and encouraged cordiality, Rice suggested he had more than just a disagreement with Scutari.
Still, some hailed the passage of the legislation.
“For too long, our brothers and sisters have suffered at the hands of racist policies that criminalized Black and Latinx people as drugs were funneled into our communities,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, an African Methodist Episcopal preacher and advocate for legalization, in a statement. “I am hopeful that we are beginning a new era for our state.”
The bill also states that distribution of up to one ounce will only result in a written warning for first offenses.
Senator Teresa Ruiz said Thursday, “Decriminalization is a key part of ensuring that our marijuana policies protect disenfranchised communities even after legalization is in effect and its passage has to be a priority.”
200 pages of detailed regulations
The legislation is a thicket of technical detail that is being closely watched by lobbyists and businesses interested in opening shop in New Jersey.
For consumers, the legislation means cannabis will be subject to the state’s 6.625% sales tax with an option for towns to levy a tax of up to 2%.
Another compromise comes in the form of an “excise tax” on growers which will fluctuate as wholesale prices drop. The tax will range from $10 to $60 per ounce as prices are expected to bounce between $200 and $350.
There will be four levels of tax under the bill, so if cannabis is $350 or more, the tax per ounce will be $10. That rises to $60 per ounce if the retail price of the product is less than $250.
All revenues from the excise tax will be directed to majority Black and Brown communities that were neglected by previous cannabis laws.
Full steam ahead in New Jersey
Another part of the bill that resulted from lawmaker negotiations is a limit on the number of licenses for cultivators. They will be set at 37 for two years. The state Senate was pushing for no limits, but the Assembly wanted the caps.
And lawmakers didn’t stop there. They are also considering a measure (S2535/A1897) to decriminalize marijuana made necessary because the state’s laws make possession a crime, despite the voter-approved amendment. Among other things, that measure would permit carrying up to 6 ounces of cannabis.
Monday, Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester told the judiciary committee, “There’s no question we’ll be back in a year or two saying there was an unintended consequence. And we’ll fix that because we want this industry to flourish.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.