Complaints and Confusion as Recreational Marijuana Bill Goes to Full Senate

Passage is far from certain since even some lawmakers who voted measure out of joint committee indicate they’re not ready to say ‘yes’ in December legislative session

Credit: NJTV News
Marijuana smoker
After a long, heated debate on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, a joint committee hearing of both the Senate and Assembly released on Monday the proposed law that would make New Jersey the 10th state to do so. The bill could be considered by the entire state Legislature as soon as December 17.

But whether the bill will pass remains in doubt. At this point, Democrats do not have enough votes to see it through, at least in the Senate. It takes at least 21 votes to pass legislation in the upper house; currently, there are only 20 votes in favor, at best.

In addition to legalizing recreational marijuana, the joint bill would also set up a process to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of possessing or distributing small amounts of cannabis. Erasing those records could remove barriers affecting college, employment, and housing options.

Cutting off comment

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen)
An overpacked hearing listened to four hours of testimony pro and con before Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) took the unusual step of shutting down public comment with about 40 people still listed to speak. Many of those who testified took issue with various provisions of the bill, rather than the entire measure. But because the bill language was not available to most of the public before the hearing, it was unclear whether some objections had been addressed in amendments. What’s more, a number of legislators seemed confused about the contents of the measure. Nevertheless, committee members forwarded the bill (S-2703/A-11) to the entire Legislature without changes.

NJ Spotlight published an overview of the bill yesterday.

Liz Acevedo, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), said that the speaker and Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) are in talks with the Murphy administration. “The Speaker is confident the bill will pass when it is posted for a vote in the full Assembly,” she said.

The bills might never have made it out of the committees if Democratic leadership hadn’t substituted members who solidly supported the measures on each panel. In both houses, three lawmakers sat in on the hearing and voted in place of other members. And even some of those who voted to release the bills — including Sarlo and Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) — said they may not vote in favor of final passage.

Getting beyond ‘no’

In the Senate, replacing budget committee members Nilsa Cruz-Perez of Camden County, Linda Greenstein of Mercer, and Brian Stack of Hudson left their support in doubt. Five others are “no” votes at the moment: Nia Gill, Ronald Rice, and Richard Codey, all of Essex, Nicholas Sacco of Hudson and Shirley Turner of Mercer. Codey and Rice are considered definite “no” votes, but it is believed Gov. Phil Murphy might be able to sway other Democrats to support the bill.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari
“We are going to work on them, but we are also going to work on some Republicans,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the key sponsor of the bill, along with Sweeney. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican based in Monmouth County, voted “no” but said he could be swayed to support the bill if it is amended to address some of his concerns.

Sweeney said he won’t post the bill for a floor vote until there is enough support for it.

Murphy vs. Sweeney (again)

There appear to be at least two sticking points between Murphy and Sweeney. The governor, who ran on a platform calling for legalization, originally wanted to impose a 25 percent tax on marijuana to bring $300 million into the state’s coffers, but with the two top Democrats arguing over the percent, and half the year gone, it’s not likely the state will see that much money. And Sweeney wants only a 12 percent tax. Another issue, according to the Senate president, is that the bill calls for a paid five-member board to oversee and regulate the cannabis industry, rather than a volunteer, advisory board.

“When we first allowed legalized gaming in the state, we created a part-time commission that was wrought with corruption,” said Sweeney, who also filled in on the committee and voted for the bill, of which he is a co-sponsor. “But on the creation of this industry, we want a full-time commission that has nothing else in terms of responsibilities.”

Following a press conference to again push for a $15 minimum wage, Murphy said his administration is working with lawmakers, who know his positions.

“I’m encouraged that it’s moving in the right direction and it’s too early to tell as it relates to exactly the elements that are in there,” he said, refusing to discuss specific aspects of the bill. “I didn’t come to adult-use legalization overnight … We are not, neither we or the Legislature, we’re not inventing marijuana. It exists, it will continue to exist in our society. The question is if we have the will, the courage to solve the social justice inequities of the past.”

Not black or white, but green

Assemblyman Gary Schaer
The bill is being sold by sponsors as a social justice measure, meant to remedy decades of inequities that have led to blacks being arrested for marijuana-related crimes at three times the rate of whites. But with so much attention on taxes and the state’s fiscal woes, several of those who testified asserted that the effort is really about money.

“I see it purely as a way to make more money for the state,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), a loud opponent of the measure.

Scutari, one of the three substitute committee members who voted to advance his bill, said the measure will bring in tax revenue but it will also create “an entire billion dollar industry” that includes farming and R&D.

“This will stimulate the economy of New Jersey like nothing else,” he said. “We’re creating an entire new business opportunity, an entire new business people can create from the ground up. We will be creating new jobs like no Legislature has ever done before.”

Rice, another vocal opponent, said the bill is “about making money for white investors” and the social justice aspect is not going to happen. It will, instead, do “more harm to black folks” who will continue to be incarcerated in greater numbers.

Will the rich get richer?

State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), center, spoke against legalizing marijuana yesterday.
“We are promising black and brown people things that are not going take place,” said Rice, who is African-American and asserted the bill should have a “racial impact statement.” He added, “All this bill means is that the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer … I know what racism is and I know what injustice is and this stinks of it.”

But African-American Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), a co-sponsor of the bill in the lower house, said the measure is absolutely needed to begin to reverse the damage done by the war on drugs launched in the 1970s that led to strict laws and harsh, often mandatory sentences for drug use.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley
“When you see a pathway for people who look like you and finally have the power to enact change, it’s easy for me,” said Holley, who called the ability the legislation would give those convicted of drug crimes to have their records expunged “critically important to correcting the wrongs of the past.” He told of his own experience growing up. “The world where I come from is a world where marijuana and drugs were sold to make a living. I feel lucky for surviving a world that is really scary out there. This was easy for me.”

Tens of thousands of busts for grass

Diana Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the legislation is not perfect and needs some revisions, particularly regarding the expungement process, but “for us, it’s a racial justice issue.” She said the police made more than 32,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2016, the most ever, and that in some parts of the state, blacks are arrested at rates six times higher than whites.

She and others who testified were critical of the lack of transparency surrounding yesterday’s vote. The amended legislation released by the committees runs to 150 pages and was neither available online before the vote nor was it posted on the Office of Legislative Services’ website after it was updated to show the bill had moved. There were printed copies, without bill numbers, available those who attended the hearing.

Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former member of the Obama administration and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, complained that committee leaders cut off testimony and rushed the bills to a vote.

“Arm twisting of on-the-fence lawmakers and intentional silencing of expert testimony is a sad loss for democracy and the interests of public health and safety,” said Sabet, whose SAM Action group is partnering with New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy and the state chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, and American Heart Association to oppose legalization. “Slamming a bill through committee is no way to draft public policy with as many far-reaching consequences as the legalization and commercialization of a substance much more powerful than it used to be.”

Several people who testified complained about language in the bill that had been updated but not widely available. Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Burlington) abstained on voting out the bill because she said the measure needs to include requirements for child-proof packaging and advertising restrictions, both of which are addressed in the amended legislation.

Getting the goods on grass

The bill covers a host of aspects of marijuana legalization for those 21 and older, including retail, wholesale and distribution; conditions for store locations and persons eligible for licenses; taxation; role of law enforcement; and marketing. Municipalities would get to impose a 2 percent excise tax on cannabis businesses operating within their borders, an amount they say is not enough. Marijuana retailers would be allowed to set up “consumption areas” on premises, like those some cigar sellers set up. That is particularly important to ensure those living in federally subsidized housing, who would not be allowed to smoke in their homes, could still use marijuana legally.

The measure also would make those with prior marijuana convictions involving less than an ounce eligible for an expedited expungement of their criminal records; the state Administrative Office of the Courts would have to set up a computerized system to facilitate this process. A separate but related measure, S-3205, that also cleared the committees yesterday would delete a provision in current law that bars expungement of convictions for certain controlled dangerous substances, thus allowing for the erasure of cannabis-related criminal records.

Edward Forchion, aka NJ Weedman, center, opposes this legislation.
The hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd to one of the largest hearing rooms in the State House Annex, with the state police at times preventing people from entering until others left due to overcrowding. Among those who attended were several luminaries well-known for different reasons, including former Gov. Jim Florio, now an adviser to a company that makes edible marijuana; former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who is a recovering addict and testified against legalization for recreational use; and Edward Forchion, a colorful activist better known as NJ Weedman, who has run for Congress and other offices under the Legalize Marijuana banner and spent more than 400 days in jail, mostly on drug-related charges.

Weedman doesn’t like bill

Forchion said that while he supports legalization and will continue to use and sell cannabis, he does not back the legislation that passed. It will not help people of color and will not eliminate criminal drug dealers, he said, but will allow them to thrive because they will be selling marijuana for less than authorized retailers.

“There’s not very much diversity in this bill,” he said. “We know who are going to get the dispensaries. I call them the Caucasian cannabis corps. But the biggest market is the black market. People like me who have sold marijuana, we are not going anywhere.”

It’s unclear whether the complaints from Forchion and others that the legislation does not go far enough are directed at the original bill, introduced last June at 68 pages, or the more complex version, which sets up impact zones as the first areas where cannabis distributors could be located. Those would be the state’s largest cities or places with a high crime index, high unemployment, or a large number of cannabis- or hashish-related arrests.

Many of the comments from those opposed touched on themes already raised, including that legalizing marijuana will lead to greater use among juveniles, an increase in auto accidents and auto insurance premiums, and users getting addicted and moving on to even more dangerous drugs.

Scutari debunked those and other complaints.

“To me, the most import aspect of legalization is to get rid of the drug dealers. You can go two blocks from my office and buy marijuana,” he said. “We’ve got to take our heads out of the sand. What we have tried to do simply isn’t working. The gateway drug argument simply is not factual, not scientific. The real culprit is interaction with drug gangs … No one under 21 will be allowed in those stores. No one in the history of this planet has died from marijuana usage. The same cannot be said about alcohol.

“In those states that have legalized it, the sky has not fallen.”

Carly Sitrin contributed to this story

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