Legal Weed In NJ? Lawmakers Hold Hearings Amid Questions Over Marijuana Legalization

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez

New Jersey under Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to drastically change how it treats marijuana use, but lawmakers are largely divided between supporting decriminalization and full legalization.

Which path the state should take is planned to be the subject of testimony Monday afternoon at a hearing of the Assembly oversight committee — the first action taken by the Assembly on marijuana since Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, took over leadership of the chamber this year.

Murphy supports making New Jersey the 10th state to allow adults to use marijuana without conditions, arguing that legal marijuana would reduce racial disparities in drug-related arrests while freeing up police and prosecutors for more serious crimes.

But the governor is facing resistance from key groups, including the Legislative Black Caucus under the leadership of Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, who has said a legal market could inundate urban communities with marijuana and make it easier for children to access the drug. Rice instead advocates removing criminal penalties for marijuana use without legalizing the drug.

Monday’s hearing comes as Murphy is preparing to deliver his first budget address on Mar. 13, when he will have to lay out in actual numbers how he will fund his many campaign promises, including increasing school funding and payments into the state’s beleaguered pension system. The estimated $300 million that would result from marijuana legalization would not cover the full cost of Murphy’s proposals, but it would help relieve pressure on a chronically tight budget.

The Assembly oversight committee is not scheduled to vote on any bills Monday even though several have already been introduced to create a fully legal market for adults, decriminalize the drug or expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, which started in 2010.

One legalization measure sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, an influential Democrat from Union County, would allow possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form, 7 grams of concentrate and six immature plants.

The legislation, S-830, would also establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement to regulate the industry and impose a sales tax on marijuana that would rise incrementally from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years.

New Jersey is already one of 29 states that allow marijuana to be prescribed for medical conditions. Murphy has said the state’s medical marijuana rules are too restrictive and ordered a review aimed at expanding the program.