Legal Marijuana in NJ: Bill Passes First Big Hurdle
Marijuana legalization in New Jersey took its first two steps Monday through the state Legislature, though the tallest hurdles remain to be cleared.
After a nearly five-hour hearing, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and Assembly Appropriations Committee voted in favor of S2703/A4497, which would legalize the possession and personal use of marijuana for people age 21 and older.
“It has been a long (process). I can tell you I first started talking about this topic probably almost 15 years ago, and people looked at me like I had two heads, that it was a ridiculous topic that we shouldn’t even consider.” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union.
The bill would create a state commission that would regulate the legal sale of recreational marijuana but continue to prohibit people from growing it at home. It calls for a state tax rate of 12 percent and a local tax rate of up to 2 percent – but that and other details are subject to change.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said marijuana legalization has involved more direct involvement of legislative leaders and bill sponsors than any other issue he has seen since joining the Legislature in 2002.
“This isn’t a budget deal,” Sweeney said. “I want to commit that to you. That’s why I’m fighting for the tax rate to be lower. We’re trying to avoid the black market, and higher taxes only bring more black market business.”
Edward Forchion, a marijuana activist who goes by the self-assigned nickname NJ Weedman, told the committees that legalization would encourage him to sell marijuana illegally, not stop him. He said he doubts a jury would convict him for selling a drug that would be legal for others to sell with a license.
“I think I will be one of these guys who will be challenging the law openly,” Forchion said. “I’m not going to hide it. The day you pass this bill, people like me are going to be emboldened to start selling weed like the white guys.”
Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said Forchion’s testimony was the day’s most interesting.
“The Weedman, who I’ll call the Sales Man, is telling you that he is not going to stop selling illegal products,” Wirths said. “There were some comments that this will put an end to illegal sales. When someone’s sitting here in a room full of lawmakers, with state troopers, with sheriff’s officers, saying, ‘It’s going to be a good day for me, I’m going to go out and sell more weed,’ I think we’ve got to be honest with ourselves.”
The votes were 7-4 with two abstentions in the Senate and 7-3 with one abstention in the Assembly. Six Democrats normally on those committees didn’t attend the hearing and were replaced by six Democrats who voted for the bill – which could, but doesn’t necessarily, mean they aren’t sure supporters of it.
And two Democrats who voted yes indicated they might not when the next vote comes around. Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, abstained but said he’s still leaning against the bill. Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, voted yes but said he did so only to enable high-level, closed-door talks to continue.
Gov. Phil Murphy supports legalization but hasn’t endorsed the details of the bill passed by the committees, and even the bill’s supporters say more changes are possible after negotiations. It’s possible, though not certain, a final vote will be held Dec. 17.
The committees also advanced legislation that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program.
That bill, which was also endorsed Monday by the Senate health committee, allows any doctor to prescribe cannabis for any diagnosed condition; adds chronic pain as a qualifying condition; allows adults to be prescribed edibles, not just minors; expands how much supply a patient can buy at one time; and phase out the sales tax on medical marijuana products by 2023.