Key New Jersey Committees Hear and Advance Cannabis Bills

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Monday was a big day for New Jersey lawmakers to debate how the state’s new cannabis landscape will unfold. 

On Election Day, more than 67% of New Jersey voters cast their ballots  in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use. Now, New Jersey lawmakers are zeroing in on how legalization will be implemented in the state. 

The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee heard multiple pieces of cannabis legislation at once: S21, a bill to implement a cannabis legalization regulation after voters passed Public Question 1; and two bills that lawmakers merged that would decriminalize cannabis and expunge some cannabis-related offenses. After nearly three hours of debate and discussion, the committee voted in favor of advancing S21, approving the proposal 6-1 with several abstentions. Discussion among senators mostly focused on the illicit market, home grow, testing and law enforcement, tax allocation, and equity and social justice provisions. 

Senators also eventually debated and decided to combine A1897 and S2535, creating one bill to cover decriminalization and expungement, voting to release this bill, too. 

Running concurrently to the Senate committee hearing on cannabis, the Assembly Oversight Committee heard their version of the cannabis regulation bill, and voted to advance it.

The cannabis bills still need to head to the full chambers for  floor votes before heading to Governor Phil Murphy, who has said he is eager to get the ball rolling on legalization. 

While voters have passed a measure to legalize cannabis, technically, someone in New Jersey could still be arrested for cannabis activities that will soon be legal. To that end, also on Monday, Senate President Steve Sweeney issued a statement urging Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to release clear guidelines to law enforcement to “immediately suspend arrests and court cases for possession of marijuana.” 

“The people of New Jersey have spoken loud and clear,” Sweeney said in the statement. “No one should be arrested and face criminal charges for possession of minimal amounts of marijuana now that the people have spoken,” Sweeney continued, adding, “It’s time for these arrests that have disproportionately affected people of color to stop.”

New Jersey is moving fast on implementation of its legalization measure, outpacing the four other states that had cannabis measures on their ballots last week. Just this past Friday, Governor Phil Murphy named the state’s top cannabis regulators

“Welcome everyone for a day of cannabis,” Senator Nicholas Scutari said, kicking off the hearing. “The drug war in this country, and more particularly in this state, has been a miserable failure. All it has done is destroy lives,” Scutari, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, adding that that prohibition created a “downtrodden class” of people that have disproportionately been people of color. 

Scutari is a lead sponsor of the cannabis regulation bill, which would allow adults 21 and older to buy and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. It would also give local jurisdictions control over how legalization unfolds in their regions, by allowing localities to ban retail activity and decide whether to allow onsite consumption of cannabis. One notable area that localities won’t have control: delivery, which would be legal throughout the state. 

Scutari said that one of his primary goals of the legislation is to curb the illicit market. This topic came up several times, specifically when senators discussed possession limits, taxes, and home growing. 

The legislation that Scutari proposed, he said, will “generate a certain amount of business and employment opportunities for our public members. But this will not be something that happens overnight. The black market will not disappear tomorrow. This is a long term process, but I believe today is a first step in reversing our putative marijuana laws in the state of New Jersey.” 

There have been hints that New Jersey’s giant leaps toward legalization will spur other states in the northeast, namely Pennsylvania and New York, to take up the cause earlier than expected. Cannabis Wire interviewed key lawmakers in Pennsylvania about the likelihood that the Keystone state will legalize before the current session ends on November 30. 

Scutari acknowledged the cannabis legalization ecosystem in the northeast. 

“I’d like to see us become a leader on the east coast. We’ve been trying to get ahead of the curve for a decade, and I think we are still poised to do that,” Scutari said, referencing the legalization regulation bill, which is more than 200 pages long.  

Senator Teresa Ruiz, a sponsor of the decriminalization legislation, referenced an American Civil Liberties Union statistic that noted that New Jersey ranked eleventh in the country for highest rates of arrests of Black people for cannabis-related offenses. 

“The facts, the data and the damage are clear. The need for policy overhaul has been long overdue. Today we have an opportunity to accept these truths in our society and vote on a bill that begins to erase years of discrimination,” Ruiz said, calling her bill “the most progressive marijuana decriminalization bill in the nation.” 

Ruiz called Monday’s debate a “great first step in attempting to bring justice and equity to historically impacted communities,” but said that she will remain focused on legislation that can “empower disenfranchised communities by creating reparation programs for impact zones.” 

“Someone could get in trouble for selling on a block, but yet down the road, a storefront could be pushing out pounds,” Ruiz said. “We have to be sure we create concrete pathways that can take someone from the street corner to the storefronts. I am hopeful that our communities devastated by these inequitable and discriminatory policies will be made whole again.” 

Senator Michael Doherty called an aspect of the legislation a “get out of jail card,” saying that cannabis odor has been a “tool” used by law enforcement for years. “This is how law enforcement’s been trained for 50 years,” Doherty said. 

Ruiz said that the smell of cannabis odor would no longer be the primary reason that a vehicle is pulled over, so if a car is driving erratically, for example, that would be the first reason that the driver is pulled over. 

“The smell of marijuana cannot be the first thing because you can’t smell what’s happening in the car unless you’ve already made a pre-determination in your mind with set provision as to why you’re stopping that vehicle,” Ruiz said. 

Doherty responded that this legislation is “totally taking away something that’s been a tool of law enforcement for decades. It can never be used now under this bill,” adding, “You can’t drive around drinking a beer. So now you’re saying you can drive around smoking a joint?”

Scutari said that Doherty was incorrect, adding, “If you say it louder, it doesn’t make it true.” 

Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the ACLU of New Jersey, spoke about the need for legalization to be implemented through a racial justice lens, prioritizing equity. Fajardo added that New Jersey law enforcement officers made 36,000 cannabis-related arrests in 2018, adding that Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, despite similar use rates. 

“We have seen new states legalize cannabis for adult use, and new models of racial and social equity provisions emerge. And we can look to other states’ equity practices and programs to consider new and more inclusive practices here in New Jersey,” Fajardo said. 

Based on the conversations that arose on Monday, signs point to further debate about whether revenue will be carved out to support equity efforts. 

“We do ask that this is explicit, that we are investing money into the communities that are facing disproportionate harm and that we are ensuring also that folks impacted by arrests and criminal records have explicit opportunities outlined,” Fajardo said, adding that the ACLU of NJ proposes  the creation of an equity applicant status to ensure that those people with prior cannabis-related arrest records, and their families, are all granted the chance to join the state’s legal cannabis industry, “and make sure that as we are switching the way that we legally treat cannabis, we’re also creating economic opportunity.” 

Scutari responded by saying that, already, “people are asking for money related to the tax or the money that may be garnered as a result of a legalized industry.” While Scutari said that many of these people have “great ideas,” the taxes are a balancing act.

“We need to let this marketplace get off the ground. My Republican colleagues could probably agree with the fact that we don’t want to overtax and overburden a product before it’s even being sold because we’re already competing with the black market,” Scutari said, adding that his paramount priority is to “get rid of drug dealers,” and if New Jersey’s cannabis products are priced too high before the market goes live, Scutari said that many consumers will stick with their local dealer. 

“This is not just for you. This is for everybody that’s asking for additional money, revenues dedicated,” Scutari told Fajardo. “The divvying up of the spoils of the program is something that I believe should be done through the budgetary process.” 

Senator Gerald Cardinale prompted discussion about why the legislation doesn’t allow home grown cannabis. 

Scutari said that he’s “not against it,” but responded by highlighting the “policing problems that come from allowing home grown,” Scutari said. “If you allow people to grow their own, why are people going to apply for licenses, and go through testing. And then it’s going to leak out into other jurisdictions.” 

Cardinale also questioned license caps, suggesting that limiting licenses so that they’re “rare” could make it tough for consumers to access cannabis products. 

“We should give a license to anyone who qualifies for a license, regardless of the number. And the customer, the marijuana customer, should be advantaged because there would be competition on price that would not be there once you limit the licenses,” Cardinale said. 

Scutari responded, “I agree with that. I believe we’re going to make that amendment.” 

There was also discussion about the five pound limit of cannabis, which is a function of the state’s penal code. Scutari said that amount is “under consideration” for adjustment, saying he’s “open-minded” to lowering that amount. 

Questions about employment and cannabis were the topic of discussion for more than a half hour. Specifically, senators debated cannabinoid testing and safety sensitive employees, like truck drivers, bus drivers, conductors, and machine operators, because cannabinoids remain in the system long after impairment. After discussion, Scutari said he’d work with lawmakers to make the language more specific. 

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