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New Jersey Pols Ready to End Prohibition When Christie Exits

May 15, 2017
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens as President Donald Trump speaks during an opioid and drug abuse listening session, Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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.

State Sen. Peter Scutari wants to end cannabis prohibition in New Jersey.

“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 spoke to the media in Trenton earlier this morning.

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.


Cannabis Farms on the New Jersey Turnpike? Maybe Sooner Than You Think.

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.”


Qualifying conditions for medical marijuana by state

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.”

Jay Lassiter's Bio Image

Jay Lassiter

Jay has been covering New Jersey politics since 2005, when he founded a political journalism site and became the first credentialed statehouse blogger in America. He currently reports on politics for Leafly and the New York Observer.

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  • sean marry

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    • 360dunk

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    • Live long, friend.

  • Fester

    The bill is far from perfect but so much better then what we currently have that we have to support it. At least Scutari is being honest for him it’s all about the money. NJ will make a ton of money the first few years as the citizens of NY (which will not see legalization under Governor Dumbass) will happily make the trip to NJ to buy legal weed and drive back to NY with their quasi decriminalization. Hopefully it won’t take more then a few years to allow home grows. Really hope Governor Murphy signs this on day one so Governor Krispy Kreme can choke on it.

  • FCN

    Awesome.If Jersey can grow bud like they can grow tomatoes I might move back home to Philly !!

  • David Manevich

    I grew up in North Jersey now im stuck in Ohio. Here we have a pretty shitty mmj law and still have at least another year and a half till we even see a dispensary and of course no homegrow. I salute my old state and wish you the best. At least ill be able to partake when i visit the shore next summer.

  • PTSD must be included in the medical criteria or the legislation risks being seen as snubbing disabled veterans (those of us with the civilian version too). Nevertheless, these events make NJ a leader in the East and as a Southerner, I salute you for paving the way.
    Here in Tennessee we have plenty of weed and lack of legislation won’t stop us from growing, smoking or anything else. It’s just humiliating to have so many back-assward vermin in our legislature. It’s progressing though. 😉

  • War Is A Racket

    Marijuana will be legal in CT, NY, and NJ by 2019. It’s already in the books. It’s defacto legalized in CT starting July 1st. I can drive 30 minutes to Mass from CT, buy it legally, then drive 30 minutes home in peace knowing that it’s also decriminalized in CT.