N.J. Legal Weed Bills Advance After Weeks Of Controversy – Final Votes Set For Thursday

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Landmark marijuana legislation that would set the rules for the sale of legal weed could get final approval later this week after lawmakers advanced an amended version of the lengthy bill Monday afternoon.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a package of bills set to reform New Jersey’s marijuana laws: one to launch a marijuana industry (S21), another to lessen penalties for possessing magic mushrooms (S3256) and a third that would allow investors to put money into licenses for minorities, women and disabled veterans (S2875).

Lawmakers voted all three out of committee and sent them to the full Senate.

The most important bill — launching a legal weed industry — hit several roadblocks and underwent major changes since its introduction on Nov. 6. Lawmakers have added amendments that seek to clarify drug testing at work and to direct funding to communities hit hardest by the drug war.

“There won’t be any amendments after today. Today is it,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, who sponsored the bill.

But he did say that a new legal weed law could be changed in the future as lawmakers learn more about the marijuana industry in practice.

“I’m satisfied with the way it is, but I’m not against continuing to look at a piece of legislation that’s complicated and change it as time goes on,” he said.

New Jersey voters said yes to legalizing marijuana on Nov. 3. But legislators must still pass laws to end arrests for marijuana possession and to regulate the new marijuana industry before the constitutional amendment takes effect Jan. 1.

The bill says a new Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will overlook all things marijuana may leverage a Social Equity Excise Fee on marijuana growers that will increase as the average price per ounce falls. The bill directs the money to “impact zones,” or communities disproportionately affected by drug prohibition. It also directs 70% of sales tax revenue to such programs.

Racial justice advocates have said they want to see the bill reworded to further solidify that provision. Without it, they worry money can be moved to fill budget holes down the road.

“I would like to see that language changed to ‘shall.’ We’re talking about a word game,” said Leo Bridgewater, activist and businessman in the cannabis industry who testified Monday.

The bill now limits the number of marijuana growers the state can license during the first two years following the its passage to 37.

That piece has irked racial justice advocates who want to see the industry widely opened to applicants, rather than kept competitive. But it comes as a compromise to get the bill over the finish line, senators said.

“As we know, nothing we do here is perfect, as much as we try. I don’t like the caps either,” said Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

“There is no question we will be back in a year or two saying there was an unintended consequence,” he said. “And we’ll fix that.”

Another change to the bill says employers must have “reasonable suspicion” that an employee is high on the job to conduct a drug test. It also requires drug tests to be accompanied by a physical examination by a specially trained person, but would still allow pre-employment and regular drug tests.

The legislation would allow people to use marijuana on their own time, but attempts to keep them from using marijuana or being under its effects while working. If employees are high at work, their employers can take action like suspending or firing them.

But the bill would not protect federal employees, as federal prohibition of marijuana supersedes legalization at the state level. That has left some confusion and complications lingering.

“I want to be able to support this because the people have spoken loud and clear,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergon, who voted no on the bill due to concerns with the drug testing portion. “It’s still, people don’t know what they can and what they can’t do.”

The Assembly Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on its version of the bill Tuesday. Full floor votes are expected in both the Assembly and Senate Thursday.

Gov. Phil Murphy must still sign the bill into law once it passes the Legislature.