Legal Weed Timeline Pushed Back Again For N.J. Here’s Why That May Be A Good Thing

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New Jersey Governor, Phil Murphy Photo: Associated Press

The state senator leading the way on marijuana legalization in New Jersey, Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, has long said that it’s better to get it done right than to get it done fast.

If proceeding slowly means creating a better marijuana bill, then lawmakers should have a pretty good plan, as they’ve now missed another self-imposed deadline.

Sources close to the bill have said that it will not be introduced before the end of September, something Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, had aimed for and other lawmakers said was a genuine possibility.

New Jerseyans would pay perhaps the lowest marijuana tax in the country if the bill is approved later this year.

For those lawmakers and Jersey residents eager for legalization, this is just the latest in a series of missed marijuana deadlines, and it’s still not clear when the bill will be introduced, much less passed. But as the debate continues, the plan for recreational marijuana is getting closer to what leaders said they wanted.

First, there was talk of passage within the first 100 days of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration – ambitious, but never likely. Talk then turned to legalization happening before the June 30 budget deadline. There was real effort from lawmakers to get it done by then, with multiple bills introduced and informal hearings held across the state. But fiscal concerns trumped marijuana, and the possibility of legalization faded into the summer. It has now been further delayed.

But delays have led to more debate among lawmakers and the inclusion of ideas that hadn’t previously been considered – ones that aim to help the people Murphy and lawmakers have said they want to help.

The most recent version of the legalization bill would allow people to apply for micro-licenses to grow, process or sell marijuana. These licenses would be for smaller businesses that don’t require as much startup capital, theoretically allowing people into the industry who may not have been able to afford it previously.

Opening the potential marijuana industry to small businesses has been a stated goal of state officials since the debate began, and this bill does more to that end than previous versions.

Another area where cannabis advocates expect improvement is on expungements. Previous versions of the bill said that, once marijuana is legal, people with low-level marijuana possession convictions would be able to apply to have those charges expunged.

Social justice advocates, including Dianna Houenou of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, said that didn’t go far enough.

Now, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, and Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, are writing a separate expungement bill – to be considered along with the legalization bill -that lawmakers say will make it easier for people to get old marijuana convictions expunged.

Legislators are still working with Murphy to iron out some of the bill’s specifics, taxes being one of the biggest points of contention.

A report from Politico New Jersey last week suggests that Murphy is unhappy with the 10 percent tax presented in the new legalization bill, which would be the lowest marijuana tax in the country.

Murphy has tried to distance himself from that report, saying that his administration hasn’t made up its mind about marijuana taxes.

“We typically don’t talk about legislation while they’re getting baked,” the governor said. “We’re not ruling anything out. We want to get it right.”

Murphy had previously called for a higher tax on marijuana, which suggests that taxes could be one of the first points of contention between the governor and legislators.

But as the marijuana debate moves into October, there’s still little certainty from lawmakers as to when they will introduce a cannabis bill.

Earlier this year, Murphy, as if anticipating the delays, told lawmakers that he wants to sign a legalization bill by the end of 2018. At this point, there’s no reason to think it will be delayed beyond December.

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