N.J. Lawmakers Reach Deal On Legal Weed Bill – Vote Later This Month

State capitol building in Trenton, New Jersey. Photo: Shutterstock

Lawmakers have reached a deal on a bill that will launch a legal marijuana industry in New Jersey, clearing a path for the bill to pass later this month.

“There is a deal,” Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill (S21) said Friday evening. “It’s been a long road and I’ll be happy when it’s done.”

The compromise puts one limit on licenses back into the legislation: The state can only give out 37 licenses for marijuana growers during the first two years of legal sales. The limit does not apply to microlicenses, which can be given to businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

It also dedicates 70% of the sales tax revenue, as well as all of the funds raised by a tax on cultivators, to support restorative programs for legal aid, health care, mentoring and more in minority communities disproportionately affected by the drug war.

The first piece is a win for the Assembly and the second for the Senate. Disagreements on how to limit licensing and direct funds for social justice causes both led to delays in the process.

“When the original bill was introduced in the Senate several years ago, there was no mention of social justice, social equity and revenue returning to the impacted communities and individuals that shave been affected by the war on drugs,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, one of the bill’s sponsors in the Assembly. “While it has taken a very, very long time of negotiations, debate and dialogue, I am very proud of the work of the members of the Black caucus and the Assembly and our speaker for producing the focal point of social justice in this bill. All New Jerseyans should be proud.”

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin issued a joint statement Friday evening with Scutari and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, another sponsor of the Assembly’s version of the bill.

“We’re proud to announce today that we’ve reached an agreement on legislation providing the framework for legalization, which is a critical step in reducing racial disparities and social inequities that have long plagued our criminal justice system,” the statement said.

“This legislation will accomplish our shared goals of delivering restorative justice and ensuring that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs see the economic benefits of the adult-use cannabis market. While there is still much work ahead, we are one step closer to building a new, promising industry for our state.”

New Jersey voters approved a ballot question seeking to amend the state constitution and legalize marijuana on Nov. 3. But lawmakers must still pass a bill to establish rules and regulations for the new marijuana industry to make the will of the people a reality.

Scutari has emphasized the need to work quickly and get something done before Jan. 1, when the constitutional amendment takes effect. And others have pressured lawmakers to pass a bill that will decriminalize marijuana possession and end arrests.

Legislators reached another deal on that issue earlier this week to pass a bill that will allow people to possess up to six ounces of marijuana. The effort fell off course in November after the Senate added a provision that would also downgrade penalties for possessing psilocybin, commonly known as “magic” mushrooms. The Assembly did not hold a vote on it.

Instead, they introduced a separate bill to lessen criminal penalties for psilocybin offenses, which will go before the Assembly Judiciary Committee for a first hearing Monday morning. Lawmakers expect to move forward with the bill to decriminalize marijuana this month.

Senators this week also introduced a new constitutional amendment that could go before voters in 2021. It seeks to solidify the tax structure outlined in S21, ensuring that the money only go to social and racial justice causes, and not the state’s general fund.

Lawmakers came up with the tax scheme and amended the bill after advocates turned out in droves to testify against an original version that did not direct any money to minority communities. They also called for an end to limits on licenses, arguing that an industry open to more operators would allow more minorities and women to enter the industry. A larger industry could also lead to production of more marijuana, and a drop in prices.

But the state’s existing medical marijuana companies, which competed fiercely for a limited number of licenses and stand to gain from a hold on the early market, strongly supported a temporary limit on the new licensees.

The legalization bill will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 14 and for a full vote on Dec. 17, Scutari said.