Finally, a Legalization Agreement in New Jersey


Key New Jersey lawmakers announced an agreement on the major tenets of an adult use legalization bill on Tuesday as the debate moves back to the full legislature.

Progressive advocates both cheered the momentum and said they plan to push for more specific equity commitments that would aim to ensure a diverse industry and to direct tax revenues toward communities that have been the most impacted by cannabis prohibition.

Even then, the bill may be touch and go in the Democrat-controlled statehouse.

Legislative leaders have planned a March 25 vote in the Assembly and Senate, said State Senator Nicholas Scutari, who has been involved in the legalization effort for years and helped craft the announced agreement. Scutari told Cannabis Wire that he expects “a close vote,” as Democrats are not united around the idea of legalization in the state. For example, Senator Ronald Rice, D-Newark, a former police officer, believes marijuana is a gateway drug and cannabis candy will be accessible to children if the bill passes, Rice told the North Jersey Record.

Scutari said the battle for the bill is hardly over.  “We need the governor’s support to push it over the finish line,” Scutari said.

As for specific commitments sought by progressive advocacy groups, Scutari said he was open to the discussion. But he described the agreement as both “tenuous” and “semi locked-in.”  

He said that after months of anticipation and debate, he expects legislative leaders to push for an up or down vote. By this point, he said, “I think that my colleagues are either for it or against it.”

Among the settled issues noted in the joint announcement: a five-member commission to oversee the new industry, appointed by the governor; a $42-an-ounce excise tax; and additional taxes from individual municipalities.

Cannabis legalization advocates like Meagan Glaser, the deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for progressive drug policy reform, are still waiting for the full details of the agreed-upon legislation, which New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and key statehouse Democrats said in a statement would be released “in the coming days.” Glaser told Cannabis Wire that the compromise falls short. “Our advocacy priority at the moment is still community reinvestment,” Glaser said, as specific dollars have not been allocated for impoverished New Jersey communities.

The announced agreement came as a relief for legalization proponents, because, while lawmakers have been hinting at an agreement for months, there’s been little visible progress. And despite the agreement’s apparent tenuous nature, its broad framework appears to be in place. The lawmakers’ announcement signaled that disagreements over cannabis tax rates and whom would appoint a board that would oversee the new adult-use regime have been settled. “I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities, while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes,” Murphy said in a statement.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey, called the announced agreement a “good start.” The ACLU-NJ and a coalition of like-minded groups are seeking cannabis reforms in four areas: Expunging past cannabis-related charges; ensuring tax revenue goes toward equity programs in communities  “hardest hit” by the War on Drugs, including job training and economic development funds; provisions to promote a diverse industry; and the ability for New Jerseyans to be able to grow cannabis at home, he said. (For more on the draft bill’s equity provisions, see Cannabis Wire’s coverage from last month.)

A draft of the bill that circulated in November contained pieces of the equity provisions that ACLU-NJ and others have asked for, Sinha said, while home grow continued to be off the table. In the draft, only cannabis possession charges below fifty grams would be eligible for expedited expungement. And, the November draft didn’t include specific percentages of tax revenue or dollar amounts for equity programs, changes ACLU-NJ and others will seek, Sinha said. The group will also push for language that guarantees adding more appointees with civil rights experience to the cannabis industry’s governing body.

“Cannabis legalization presents a unique opportunity,” Sinha said. “We are creating an industry around a product that has been used to oppress communities of color across the state. I think New Jersey has an obligation, a duty, to restore those communities as best they can.”

Sinha also said the state’s new law should ensure the new industry is open to everyone. “It shouldn’t just be an elite white industry built on the backs of people of color,” he said.

The agreed-upon points of the bill that were resolved and announced by Gov. Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Scutari, and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano were:

  • A Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will regulate the industry and approve license applications, will be composed of five members: three appointed solely by the governor and two other members appointed by the governor but with a recommendation from the Assembly Speaker and Senate President;
  • An excise tax when cannabis is cultivated at $42 per ounce;
  • A 3% local tax on retailers that would go to municipalities;  
  • A 2% local tax on cannabis cultivators or manufacturers that would go to municipalities;
  • A 1% local tax on wholesalers that would also go toward the municipality where the facility was located.

The lawmakers’ statement also spelled out the broad outlines for some of the equity provisions sought by advocates:

“Provisions in the bill establish an expedited expungement process for individuals convicted of low-level marijuana offenses, and a virtual expungement process that will automatically prevent certain marijuana offenses from being taken into account in certain areas such as education, housing, and occupational licensing,” the statement said.

“Additionally, there are a number of provisions that aim to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises, low- and middle-income individuals, and disadvantaged communities across the state.”

Meanwhile, neighboring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn’t sure whether his push for cannabis legalization will make it through in his promised timeline. In New York, as in New Jersey, equity discussions have taken center stage.

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