New Jersey Legislation: What’s Taking Them So Long?

Sunset over the pier in Atlantic City iStock / AUDREY SCRIPP

When Democratic governor Phil Murphy took his oath of office last January, he reaffirmed his promise to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey within his first year. His campaign benefited from a groundswell of support from cannabis activists, small business owners, and justice system reform advocates. In public, Murphy has shown himself to be unafraid to take a strong stance in support of legalization. Hearing an Asbury Park resident speculate at a recent town hall meeting that legal cannabis could help fight the opiate crisis, Murphy declared he was “in violent agreement,” adding that doctors “dispense Oxycontins like M&Ms. To have (marijuana) as an alternative would be a huge weapon in that fight.”

Governnor Murphy and Cannabis: Best Frienemies

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy

Phil Murphy via Wikimedia Commons

But behind closed doors, Murphy’s support may not be as stalwart. As 2018 nears to a close, New Jersey citizens are left wondering if the legislation will ever pass.  After months of debate in the press and in the statehouse, New Jersey’s state legislators took a historic step on Monday, November 26th as a committee from the Assembly and the Senate finally voted to move forward with a recreational marijuana bill.

Now the bill awaits a final vote by the full legislature, which is majority Democratic, but the path to victory isn’t as clear as it once seemed when Murphy addressed his supporters nearly a year ago. Even Murphy won’t put forward more than cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that it’s moving in the right direction, and it’s too early to tell as it relates to exactly the elements that ultimately are in there,” he said. “We’ll see, but I’m happy to see the progress.”

The most pressing problem is that legislators haven’t yet agreed on a final version of the language in the bill itself. With the date of the next session, December 17th, looming ever closer, committee members in both houses scramble to reach consensus. Even those who support the bill differ in opinions of how it should be implemented. Lawmakers had been considering a 10% rate, which would be the lowest cannabis tax in the country, but Murphy balked at that.

The Governor won’t openly state what tax rate he supports, but a Politico report suggests he would prefer a rate as high as 25%. Critics say this runs the risk of creating a black market for cheaper cannabis products, defeating the purpose of legalization entirely.

“The bill has 10 percent. That makes zero sense to me,“ one senior administration official told Politico. “Pro-legalization advocates in the Legislature and administration agree that setting too high a tax would allow the state’s black market to continue to thrive.”

Senate President Stephen Sweeney supports a tax rate of 12%, in line with what other rec states have opted for. “I don’t want to put it too high because people won’t buy it legally — they’ll buy it illegally.”

Though the debate is causing delays that frustrate both voters and legislators, Murphy counsels patience. “It’s more important to get it right than get it fast.”

Expunging Marijuana Possession Convictions in New Jersey

Drug dealer under arrest confined with handcuffs and hands at his back, standing next to a wall. Focus on the handcuffs chain

New Jersey is considering expunging misdemeanor possession charges

An even more contentious issue attached to the bill, New Jersey’s progressive measure to push for expungement of marijuana possession convictions, would address one of the primary inequities surrounding both legal and illegal marijuana use, the marked racial disparity of possession convictions. Though all races consume cannabis at roughly equal rates, black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for it.

Currently, New Jersey residents with marijuana-related charges on their records who haven’t had any ensuing convictions can petition to have their records expunged after five years, but the new bill would allow those with otherwise clean records to become automatically eligible for expungement, with no waiting period. While other states have addressed the criminal justice side of marijuana separately from medical and recreational legalization, New Jersey activists and lawmakers feel it’s important to build it into the bill from the beginning, adding to the variables up for debate.

Whipping The Votes

Once the New Jersey state legislature agrees on the language of the recreational cannabis bill, they’ll still need to vote on it. Current estimates are favorable, but the margins are thin. The bill needs 21 votes in the state Senate and 41 votes in the Assembly, meaning Democrats may need to garner support across the aisle to ensure success, a challenging task considering the typical Republican attitude towards cannabis.

Republican Chris Christie’s former Lt. Governor, Kim Guadagno, even went so far as to compare recreational marijuana to the sex trade. In a radio interview on NJ101.5 on November 27th, saying 

“Now that I’m not running for office anymore, if they need revenue that badly, let’s legalize a victimless crime and tax it up the wazoo.  What do I mean by that? Let’s legalize prostitution… What is the difference? Except you won’t be losing an entire generation of children with pot. There are other ways to raise revenue without raising taxes or by legalizing marijuana.”

If Democrats do manage to whip the votes they need, Murphy still needs to sign it. As legalization was a major plank in his campaign platform it’s easy to assume that’s a lock, but some activists worry his rumored objections over the tax rate may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Senate President Sweeney has made it clear that he won’t take any risks on that front, and won’t put a bill in front of Murphy until he’s sure the bill has the Governor’s support. “Until we can come to an agreement, we can’t send a bill to him,” Sweeney said.

The earliest possible date for a vote is December 17th, the next date the New Jersey state Assembly is in session. If it passes then, experts expect recreational retail operations to take about a year to establish themselves, although some medical dispensaries may be able to sell to recreational users sooner than that, provided they reserve enough stock for their medical patients.

If the vote succeeds, New Jersey could be the next state to benefit from a cannabis industry gold rush. As edibles entrepreneur Peter Barsoom tells Rolling Stone, “New Jersey will be the first state in the country to legalize and put in a regulated system through legislation. You have it at the Senate president, you have it at the assembly, you have it at the governor, you have it at the director of the department of health, at so many different levels, there is an alignment there, an, ‘OK, let’s get this right,’ and that’s very exciting.”

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