With the clock running down on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s term, cannabis advocates are accelerating their efforts in the Garden State.
This morning in Trenton, state Sen. Nick Scutari introduced a bill to end cannabis prohibition in New Jersey. Scutari (D-Linden) sponsored New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, and led a delegation of state lawmakers on a fact-finding tour of Colorado last year.
“New Jersey was at the forefront of this debate years ago, and now we lag behind,” Scutari told a phalanx of reporters. “I don’t want to be the one to bring up the rear on this issue.”
Christie’s term expires in January 2018, and any cannabis reform measure passed before then would most likely be vetoed by the famously anti-cannabis governor. But lawmakers like Scutari want to be ready to move on reform on the first day of his successor’s term in office.
Scutari’s bill sets up a division within the Attorney General’s office to regulate recreational cannabis like alcohol. The Division of Marijuana enforcement, under the AG, would set up and promulgate the regulations governing recreational cannabis in the state of NJ.
After an initial determination to see which towns want in, the newly formed Division would license cultivation, production, wholesale and retail sale of cannabis in New Jersey. The actual number of licenses would be commensurate to the level of response from that initial determination. The more towns that want in, the more licenses would be made available.
Scutari's bill doesn't allow homegrow. 'You can't tax homegrown marijuana,' said one observer.
Interestingly, Scutari’s legislation would allow medical dispensaries currently operating in New Jersey to make retail sales during the initial regulatory setup. The sooner we sell, the sooner we tax. Or so the thinking goes.
One provision to note: The bill contains no allowance for homegrown cannabis.
“It’s about getting those yes votes,” one political observer commented, noting that homegrow can be a turnoff for some fence-sitting voters. “Besides, you can’t tax homegrown marijuana.”
For Ken Wolski, who runs the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, even an imperfect bill would bring immense benefits to medical marijuana patients in New Jersey.
“This will force the state’s medical marijuana program to become more sophisticated, more medical,” Wolski told Leafly. “It’s necessary for those with serious medical conditions to have specific strains in specific formulations at an appropriate dose. This forces doctors to become more engaged when dispensing medical cannabis.
More Qualifying Conditions Added
Speaking of medical cannabis: Last week a state panel took petitions from advocates wishing to expand and improve NJ’s medical marijuana program. After reviewing the petitions and taking testimony from patients and caregivers, New Jersey’s medical marijuana review panel voted 5-1 to expand the program’s qualifying conditions to include Tourette’s syndrome, chronic pain, and anxiety.
If approved, NJ's new qualifying conditions would include Tourette's syndrome, chronic pain, and anxiety.
The panel’s 5-1 vote is nonbinding. Their recommendations will now go to Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett, a Christie appointee and lawyer with no medical experience. She alone will accept or reject the panel’s recommendation.
“Adding chronic pain and anxiety to the list of conditions is critical for patients and will have a direct and positive effect on curbing the opioid epidemic,” Trenton lobbyist Scott Rudder told Leafly. “By giving patients a choice whether to use a safe and proven pain reliever like medicinal cannabis or the more traditional and often addictive opioids, we will start to see a shift away from opioid abuse, which is responsible for more than 23,000 overdose deaths per year.”
A former state lawmaker, Rudder was on a New Jersey delegation that traveled west last fall to learn from Colorado’s experience. His former South Jersey district is particularly hard hit by the opiate crisis.
The NJ’s Department of Health did not reply to Leafly’s requests for comment. Per local media, Dawn Thomas, a department spokeswoman expects a decision “before the end of the year.”
Christie’s term ends on January 16, 2018. Most of Trenton is setting the table for life after Chris Christie so an end-of-year year decision from Commissioner Bennett is largely moot either way.
“After 8 years of begging for relief, advocates are ready to legalize,” lobbyist Bill Caruso told Leafy before adding this pro tip: “Politicians don’t spare much political courage for expanding medicinal marijuana when over 80% of the public agrees with you. Time to legalize!”
At this point, Christie’s heir apparent is former Ambassador Phil Murphy, a Democrat, whose progressive platform includes ending cannabis prohibition. The top Republicans, Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli, support decriminalization of cannabis.
“By carefully watching what other states have already done, we can ensure a legalization and taxation program that learns from their experiences and which will work from the outset,” Murphy told Leafly via email. “But we must keep in mind this also is about social justice, and ending a failed prohibition that has served mainly to put countless people — predominantly young men of color — behind bars and behind a huge roadblock to their futures. New Jersey should choose to be a leader.”