New Jersey Marijuana Legalization: Is Home Grow Too Much, Too Soon With Legal Weed

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

In a state where the governor, many top legislators and a majority of the people tell pollsters they want to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, is homegrown weed too much to handle?

That question has been thrust before New Jersey state lawmakers, thanks to dueling legislation introduced amid the continued debate over legal weed. The newest bill, introduced in the Assembly on Tuesday, would allow marijuana users to keep up to six cannabis plants at home, though only three could be mature and flowering at any given time.

A mature marijuana plant can produce up to one pound of weed.

“Do you really want to brand someone with a lifetime felony for growing a plant for their own personal use in their own home?” said Kate Bell, an analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project.

In the other pending legalization bill, introduced last year in the Senate, there’s nary a word about “home grow” operations.

That was deliberate, said bill sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union. There are simply too many problems to solve: What if the neighbors don’t like it? What if a home grower sells some of their weed on the black market — the same black market that marijuana legalization is supposed to run out of business?

“Growing your own would not have the same testing procedures as these places that grow them under strict supervision. And we want to ensure that businesses have an opportunity to flourish,” Scutari told Philadelphia radio station WHYY, in explaining his opposition to home grow.

Legalizing marijuana — while keeping home grow illegal — would make New Jersey an outlier. It would join Washington — where home grow has been a galvanizing topic since weed was legalized — as the only “legal weed” states that deny users permission to grow their own.

In states where home grow is legal, laws usually come with restrictions on where users can grow cannabis, such as in a basement or somewhere out of public view. Users can purchase seeds at many retail marijuana dispensaries, and a few specialized stores will sell whole plants.

Seeds cost anywhere from $15 to well over $100, depending on the specific type of plant produced.

ALASKA: Six plants per person, with no more than three mature, flowering plants (when the drug can be harvested).

CALIFORNIA: Six plants per residency.

COLORADO: Six plants per person, with no more than three plants flowering. No more than 12 plants total in any residence, regardless of the number adults living there.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Six plants per person, no more than three flowering plants.

MAINE: Six flowering plants, 12 immature plants and unlimited seedlings per person, but towns can expand the limit to 18 plants.

MASSACHUSETTS: Six flowering plants per person.

NEVADA: Six plants per residence if located less than 25 miles away from the nearest retail marijuana dispensary. If located more than 25 miles away, up to 12 plants are permitted.

OREGON: Four plants per residence.

WASHINGTON: Not allowed for anyone other than medical marijuana patients.

Of the 29 states with medical marijuana, all but 10 allow patients to grow their own cannabis — in many cases, with higher limits than proscribed for recreational users. For patients, it’s often cheaper to grow cannabis at home than make multiple trips to a dispensary, especially one that doesn’t carry a specific strain, Bell said.

“New Jersey has particularly expensive medical marijuana compared to other states,” Bell said.

In Washington, cannabis advocates have petitioned legislators to allow home grow since the first movement for marijuana legalization. Last year, the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Control Board recommended that home growers be required to receive a state license and track and secure their cannabis plants like a retail dispensary.

Those recommendations were a nonstarter to cannabis advocates, but two more bills that would legalize home grow failed after the Washington state legislature failed to take action on them by Feb. 14.

Marijuana in New Jersey

“The vast majority of consumers are not going to take the time and effort to grow their own cannabis, just like they don’t brew their own beer,” Bell said. “You’re talking about a small number of dedicated hobbyists who are going to take advantage of this. The question is, would it make sense to treat them as felons?”

Though advocates have pushed for marijuana legalization for years, it became a hot topic when Gov. Phil Murphy endorsed the idea while running for governor last year.

One of his first executive orders called for the expansion of New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, which currently consists of just six dispensaries.

At his first budget address on Tuesday, Murphy said he was committed to legalizing weed before the end of the year.

“New Jersey spends upwards of $140 million per year adjudicating low-level marijuana possession offenses,” Murphy said. “And marijuana-related arrest rates are tilted 3-to-1 against African Americans, even though rates of marijuana use are similar among races.”

Pushback has been widespread, with most Republican lawmakers and many Democrats expressing concern. A bipartisan group of black lawmakers came out in support of decriminalization as a compromise option and, on Thursday, Politico NJ reported that some legislators were weighing the possibility of putting legal weed on the November ballot and letting voters decide.

Last month, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll revealed that 42 percent of New Jerseyans supported marijuana legalization, while 26 percent instead favored decriminalization and 27 percent wanted the state’s current marijuana laws to stay in tact.

Home grow may simply be too much too soon, one expert said.

Murphy’s promise of law enforcement savings could be partially negated by homegrown weed, as officials would still have to enforce limits on the number of plants, one expert said. And New Jersey is already on the hook to lose millions in court fines from marijuana possession arrests

“By allowing even a small number of home grows to persist, you open up that whole aspect of monitoring and regulating the hundreds or thousands of individual growers,” said BSC Group principal Brian Staffa, a consultant for cannabis businesses Staffa.

“That becomes an incredible task that has to fall on the (state) or back on local police,” he said. “It’s so much easier to let that go,” he said.