New Jersey legislators passed three bills on Thursday that radically change the state’s approach to drug use with marijuana.
The Senate and State Assembly first voted to create a new and legal marijuana industry from scratch, demanding that new regulations be enacted within six months.
Both houses also passed a bill decriminalizing possession of up to 6 ounces of cannabis. This second bill aims to stop arrests and clear criminal records of low-level marijuana crimes.
The third bill, meanwhile, will reduce penalties for possession of psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, from an offense to a disorderly offense.
“This is a historic day, the culmination of years of work,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the New Jersey ACLU, as he voted on legalizing marijuana for all adults. “The decriminalization law is one of the most progressive in the country.”
Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned for the legalization of marijuana on a platform, is expected to sign the bills as early as next week.
Voters overwhelmingly voted on November 3 for a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for all adults in the Garden State.
New Jersey is expected to save approximately $ 127 million annually in enforcement costs with the expected passage of the new laws. However, none of the bills deal with growing marijuana at home. Growing weeds without government approval can still lead to crime.
Although the bills passed with significant margin of maneuver, some Senate lawmakers have attacked the lack of measures in the bills to ensure greater social justice and reparation, while others said the measures were encumbered with too many regulations and taxes.
The meeting, held on a conference call because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a few inches of snow on the ground, broke into a storm of insults and accusations at one point.
State Senator Ronald L. Rice, D-Newark, who spoke out against the law, furiously reprimanded his sponsor, State Senator Nick Scutari, D-Linden for failing to include stronger social justice measures in the proposed law. The attack provoked a furious rebuttal from Scutari. When the two lawmakers yelled at each other over the phone lines, D-Gloucester Senate President Steve Sweeney threatened to mute both belligerent lawmakers.
“I’m the one legalizing it so that black and brown people don’t get arrested and he yells at me?” Scutari said minutes after the historic vote. “He’s lucky I’m not Donald Trump. I would have called him a loser. “
A study done by the New Jersey ACLU found that blacks and Latinos were more than three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes than whites, despite using cannabis at similar rates.
Scutari, who also works full-time as a prosecutor in Linden County, described the passage of legalization as the “greatest achievement for the work of a career”.
“People now have an opportunity to find work and go to college, which they may not have been able to do because they were arrested for marijuana when they were younger,” Scutari said. “It’s a major achievement for New Jersey and possibly the most significant law we’ve ever passed in my life.”
The “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act” provides the blueprint for the creation of a new corporate sector. Some industry experts believe it will create thousands of jobs and generate annual sales of $ 2 billion.
The law will limit the number of producers to a total of 37 for the first two years. The state currently has 12 medical marijuana facilities in operation. The law will distribute tax revenue to the communities with the most drug arrests and law enforcement operations. The law gives companies the right to use drug testers who are suspected of being drunk in the workplace.
Existing medical marijuana retailers will be the first to sell cannabis to adult recreational users.
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission, under the Treasury Department, will create and enforce laws governing the state’s marijuana market. These regulations must be enacted within the next six months.
“The bill leaves many important decisions to the CRC and defines new licensing approaches to address systematic inequality issues,” said Ellie Siegel, CEO of Longview Strategic, a consulting firm for the cannabis industry. “Legislators are trying not to burden the emerging industry with high costs and taxes, but until New Jersey has plenty of products on the shelves, the underground market will continue to dominate.”
Eventually, the state will issue “micro-permits” designed to give hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses the opportunity to participate in the industry.
“We don’t yet know how these micro-permits will be broken,” said Chris Goldstein, organizer of NORML, the national organization for reforming marijuana laws. “At the moment, the industry is set up in such a way that it is run like a government-sponsored cartel. As soon as wholesale is available, the micro-permits could buy and sell it. It could take a while. “
Marijuana legislation should eliminate the black market and replace it with a legal one. But state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Newark, doesn’t want “traditional” weed dealers to be left in the neighborhood.
“We’re going to be turning to make sure everyone has a way to participate,” said Ruiz, who also sponsored the decriminalization law. This law provides for the erasure of most cannabis crimes. She believes even Ed Forchion, the Garden State’s most notorious underground trader, could find a place in the legal system.
“We cannot open a new economic frontier without including those who have been hurt most by the war on drugs,” said Ruiz. “That’s why we’ve come a long way to ensure that the hardest-hit communities receive funding.”
Lawyers, experts and community leaders generally applauded the bills, though some expressed reservations.
“While our work to repair the damage caused by the drug war is far from over, today is a moment to celebrate,” said Rev. Charles F. Boyer, pastor at AME Bethel Church in Woodbury. “With this (legalization) bill, 70% of sales tax revenue and an excise tax will be used directly to fund programming in communities hardest hit by the drug war in New Jersey.”
An industry insider, unwilling to be identified, said the restrictions on weed companies are “more restrictive than those on casinos and nuclear power plants.”
State Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, lamented the lack of home ownership and lambasted the “overuse, overregulation and overcomplication” set out in the 247-page legalization bill.
“To be honest, I had no choice but to vote no,” said O’Scanlon. “The fact that the tax structure – unconstitutionally – prescribes a consumption tax (which will be banned after the referendum), which can amount to a tax rate of 60%, is a recipe for maintaining the illegal market.”
Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration adviser who co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana, was also alerted. “The New Jersey marijuana market is not going to benefit people of skin color and other disenfranchised communities,” he said. “Instead, it will continue the trend in the marijuana industry of enriching mostly white men while expanding substance use disorders and predatory marketing in vulnerable communities.”
The founder of the CannaBusiness Association said there will be time and opportunity to tweak the regulations. Scott Rudder would have preferred to see lower barriers to entry for aspiring marijuana entrepreneurs.
“There is no one who goes away and says this is 100% correct,” said Rudder, a former Republican MP from Medford. “Every major stakeholder – whether it’s social justice, industry, or the patient – is a little frustrated. But that’s exactly what happens when you try to end an 83-year cannabis ban. “