The New Jersey Senate voted 33-4 to considerably expand the state’s medical cannabis program on Thursday.
The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act would expand the list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis use, and increase the possession limit to three ounces per month in dried form. The bill transfers oversight of the medical cannabis program from the Department of Health to a yet-to-be established Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC).
“I’ve seen first-hand how much better certain individuals do on medical cannabis than they do on opioids and many times doctors prescribe opioids under our current law because it’s just so much easier,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a longtime cannabis supporter and major player in the state’s failed push to legalize cannabis for adult use. “This bill attempts to circumvent that, and make it much more streamlined, so it is treated more as a mainstream medication.”
The bill also allows medical cannabis dispensaries to have consumption areas on their premises, if the municipality in which they are located and the CRC both approve. This would provide patients living in public housing, federally-funded nursing homes, and on college campuses, or those who depend on federal housing subsidies, spaces where they could legally consume medical cannabis. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of how some federally subsidized tenants are forced to choose between their medicine and their home.)
However, there was criticism from some lawmakers, especially concerning the sales tax on medical cannabis.
“To add sales tax to medical marijuana is a crime,” said Sen. Robert Singer. “It is medical marijuana for a reason. It helps people. And we should not make a profit in helping people.”
But Scutari defended the decision to not remove the sales tax.
“The state of New Jersey incurs substantial costs with the administration of this program because, although its medicine, it’s not the same,” Scutari said. “It doesn’t fall into the same regulations of the FDA so the state has to take on a lot of the responsibilities the federal government normally would.”
Sen. Nia Gill took issue with a provision in the bill that allows an investor to bypass a background check if they hold an interest of five percent or less in a medical cannabis operation.
“So you can have one person having multiple interest of five or less in multiple companies at all levels and they don’t need a background check,” Gill said. “But, of course, some poor Joe who may have had an incident and has a record and has a background check could not even be employed in a dispensary.”
The Senate also added an amendment that allows employees in the medical cannabis industry to unionize. Hence, the bill will go back to the Assembly for a vote before heading to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk to be signed into a law.
The Senate was expected to also vote on a bill that includes an expedited expungement process for cannabis-related convictions. However, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said a drafting error required the bill to be rewritten. It will now go to vote on June 10.