What’s the Holdup, New Jersey? Squabbles Delay Legalization, Again

Published on January 29, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Will the Garden State turn greener? Maybe, if its Democratic leaders can start agreeing. (CSA-Printstock/iStock)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy just marked his first year in office after campaigning hard on a promise to end cannabis prohibition. New Jersey’s top lawmakers, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, have both posted legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis. A bill called the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act (Senate Bill 2703), has already passed muster in both the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees.

It's a fight over the tax rate and control of the state's regulatory agency.

So what’s the holdup?

“They’re only 90% in agreement on the substance of how to get there,” Scott Rudder told Leafly. Rudder is the former New Jersey state lawmaker who now runs the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association. What’s the final 10%? Rudder cited disagreements on taxation and the composition of the commission that will regulate the state’s cannabis industry.

Murphy, keen to make cannabis taxes a reliable revenue stream, proposed a 25% tariff on recreational sales. Sweeney balked, urging a lower 12% tax rate to better snuff out the illicit market.

What’s the Solution?

One possible compromise would scrap the sales tax, which fluctuates based on price point, and instead tax cannabis by weight. That way Murphy and Sweeney save face, and New Jersey avoids what befell Oregon, where nosediving cannabis prices crashed revenue projections.

One possible compromise: Tax cannabis by weight, not by retail price.

State leaders are also squabbling over the commission that’ll regulate legal cannabis sales.

According to Alma Saravia, an attorney who advises physicians on compliance with New Jersey’s medical cannabis program, the leading legalization bill provides that the commission would have five members with expertise in various issues such as public health, mental health, or substance use disorders.

The governor would appoint three of the five commission members (including the chair) with the advice and consent of the Senate. The other two members would be appointed by the Senate president and the Assembly speaker, respectively. The governor’s appointees would still be in the majority.

“This proposal is similar to the new five-member Cannabis Control Commission that was created in Massachusetts,” said Saravia, “which has authorized both adult-use and medical marijuana.”

No Love Lost Among Dem Rivals

Saravia explained that well-vetted candidates usually sail through the confirmation process. But Gov. Murphy and Sen. Sweeney have a notoriously frosty relationship—and that could sour confirmation hearings in the Sweeney-led Senate.

It would take an unprecedented amount of mutual goodwill between the two to avoid an ugly, drawn-out slugfest over each of Murphy’s three appointments.

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“In the meantime, New Jersey arrests 88 people every day for simple possession,” Rudder, the former GOP lawmaker, told Leafly. “We must do better. We need to close on this quickly and responsibly.”

Meanwhile, People Still Arrested

Dianna Houenou is policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey. She noted that each day deferred has real-life consequences for anyone ensnared by New Jersey’s retrograde cannabis policy.

'In 15 cities, black people are arrested at a rate that’s at least ten times higher' than white people.

“Every day that goes by, we’re still arresting more people. That demonstrates the urgency of getting this done quickly and with racial- and social justice at its core,” Houenou told Leafly.  “Sponsors and legislators have shown a commitment to that effort. This legislation has improved since it was first introduced.”

She cited the rule, since relaxed, that originally prevented most people with a criminal record from working in the state’s cannabis industry.

“Despite evidence that Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, Blacks in New Jersey are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate that’s three times higher than whites,” Houenou added. “In 15 cities, they’re arrested at a rate that’s at least ten times higher.”

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

Prohibitionists Gonna Prohibit

While Trenton’s top lawmakers sort this out, opponents of cannabis reform keep hammering away at their main justifications prohibition: that cannabis is a gateway drug, and that legalization might lead to hordes of motorists driving around high.

Erica Jedynak, New Jersey state director of Americans for Prosperity, took aim at the “stoned driving” myth.

“With New Jersey on the cusp of legalizing adult-use cannabis, research is still needed to identify technology to assess impairment, which the Schedule 1 drug designation makes challenging,” Jedynak told Leafly. “However, there are viable options to assess impaired driving currently. Police can assess drivers in the same way they do today with divided attention field sobriety tests, using dash and bodycams to document, and conduct toxicology screens to corroborate. Where available, Drug Recognition Experts have been found to be 94%-96% accurate.”

“The war on drugs has been an epic failure,” she added. “Eventually, AFP-NJ hopes that a fully-realized effort to legalize adult-use cannabis will enhance public safety, provide second chances, and will remain free of cronyism and overregulation.”

ACLU-NJ’s Dianna Houenou echoed that sentiment.

“Our goal is to ensure that our legalization bill sets New Jersey up for success and that our state does not become a cautionary tale,” Houenou said. “We have no excuse to get this wrong, and it’s up to the three men in charge to demonstrate that they understand that.”

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Jay Lassiter
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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