Compromise on pot legalization on track for Thursday approval
After another lengthy batch of amendments, the plan for legalization of marijuana in New Jersey is two days and three votes from Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. But advocacy groups are still pushing for change, so the debate won’t end this week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the revised bill Monday, and the Assembly Appropriations Committee is expected to do the same Tuesday. That sets up votes by the full Senate and Assembly scheduled for Thursday, snowstorm permitting.
Among the changes made to the bill is that the number of cultivation licenses in the first two years of the program would be limited to 37, rather than uncapped as it had been in the Senate bill passed in mid-November.
“I understand it was part of a negotiation with the Assembly,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth. “Hopefully after the 24 months is over, there will be consideration so more people will have opportunities and that can be removed as an obstacle.”
Tahir Johnson, who grew up in Trenton and is diversity, equity and inclusion manager for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said preference should be given to applicants from areas designated as impact zones.
“It’s important to make sure that people that are from the same communities like here in Trenton that have been harmed by the war on drugs have an equal opportunity to participate and that they don’t have to compete against multimillion-dollar corporations in order to have that opportunity,” Johnson said.
That change and others still being pitched to the committee Monday weren’t included, but Senate President Steve Sweeney said more bills will follow to alter things such as the caps on licenses.
“There’s no question we will be back in a year or two saying there was an unintended consequence. And we’ll fix that because we want this industry to flourish,” Sweeney said.
The bill advanced in a 6-5 vote. One Democrat, Sen. Paul Sarlo, joined Republicans in opposing the bill. Sarlo cited continuing concerns about the prospect of drug-impaired workers.
The bill now says drug tests would have to be based on reasonable suspicion of use, not just any suspicion at all. If a situation winds up raising alarms among federal regulators, a company could seek a stricter standard, said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union.
Ray Cantor, vice president for government relations for the director for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the current bill still isn’t sufficient.
“We do not believe we will be able to ensure a drug-free workplace and thus workplace safety, especially in critical safety-sensitive industries,” Cantor said.
Scutari said industry groups aren’t seeking drug-free work environments.
“Really what you want is a drug-free employee,” Scutari said. “That’s what you want. You want an employee who doesn’t do any type of drug use at any time, no matter what.”
The pending legalization worries Jo Anne Zito, a board member of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. She said alternative treatment centers have limited supplies, hours and appointments now, even before recreational marijuana enters the marketplace.
“Shortages of cannabis are common with legalization, which can be devastating for patients,” Zito said.
Prices can also exceed $400 an ounce at ATCs. Zito said the state should allow registered patients to grow up to five marijuana plants at their homes.