Senate and Assembly Committees Vote Out Bill Legalizing Marijuana

Carly Sitrin | March 19, 2019 | Politics
Measure could come to floor vote next week, but some pols disturbed over irregularities during hearings, raise concerns about ‘good governing’

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A recreational marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado
After hours of closed-door meetings, vocal opposition from the Republican delegation, and severely limited public testimony, state lawmakers voted the newly amended marijuana bill out of both Senate and Assembly committees late on Monday night.

The final vote count in the Senate Judiciary committee was six yes, four no, one abstention, and in the Assembly Appropriations committee the bill was voted out six yes, one no and two abstentions.

“Marijuana prohibition has failed,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor. “This bill will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market so that it can be controlled, regulated, and taxed, just as alcohol has been for decades.”

The bill, called the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act,” would legalize adult possession or use of one ounce or less (28.38 grams) of marijuana and set up a system for taxing and regulating the new cannabis economy along with expunging the records of those who have been convicted of minor marijuana offenses. Now that it has left committee, the bill will head to the full legislative floor for a vote as early as next week. If it passes, New Jersey will be the first state in the country to legalize, tax, and regulate a cannabis market through legislation.

Rocky rollout

With such a weighty task before them, some lawmakers expressed their distaste for the process by which the bill was heard in committee: hearings delayed for six hours, bills being printed even as the vote was being counted, members of the public sent home and told there would be no testimony heard.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) a strong opponent of legalization, took issue with the vote itself noting that three voting members, Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), and Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) left votes despite not being physically present at the 7 p.m. hearing.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari
“Do you intend to allow the votes of people who are not here to be counted in this committee?” Cardinale asked. Scutari responded, “Yes.”

“That’s not good governing,” Cardinale retorted. Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) agreed and called for the committee to adjourn until lawmakers had enough time to read over the bill.

“I’ve been here as everyone else has for five hours,” Bateman said, also calling the process “not good governing.”

“We haven’t gotten the final bill yet, we’re still waiting …This is one of the more important pieces of legislation we have to consider, it’s going to change the dynamics in New Jersey,” he said.

Scutari said the absent members had reviewed the bill earlier in the day and were marked present “for purposes of the committee meeting.”

Protests notwithstanding, the legalization bill, along with accompanying expungement legislation (S-3205) and medical marijuana expansion bill (S-10), passed easily out of both committees. Some lawmakers were adamant that their “yes” votes to release would not necessarily translate into affirmative votes on the floor.

“I’m not guaranteeing a vote on the floor,” Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said. “It deserves discussion. I have some issues with it.”

Hoping for answers — soon

Lawmakers are hoping their questions and issues will be addressed ahead of a full legislative vote that could come as soon as March 25. Legalization is looking more and more likely before the end of the year — as long as Gov. Phil Murphy, Sen. President Steve Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin can rally enough votes to get it passed.

Time is of the essence given that Murphy’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal counts on $60 million in new revenue from a tax on recreational marijuana. What’s more, under this bill medical facilities would be able to begin selling recreational cannabis within six months of the law taking effect. They must certify, however, that they have enough product to serve their patients.

The bill heard Monday was in its second reading. Lawmakers asserted the public had their chance to testify on a version of the legislation back in November, though it has seen several revisions and amendments since then. These include amendments some lawmakers didn’t see until moments before the vote.

“Remember, since the bill was already heard in committee, this committee will hear only the amendments that have been added to the bill, so I think that there’s some things in there that could potentially sway some members, but I don’t know. I think we have to wait and see,” Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, a member of the Appropriations Committee, told NJTV News’s David Cruz.

The new bill and the old

Not much has changed from the agreement Murphy announced last week: The tax rate will be set at a flat $42 per ounce on cultivators; localities can add up to 3 percent more; the expungement process will be expedited for those convicted of low-level marijuana crimes; and a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission will be created to oversee the industry.

One big change in the latest agreement is a cap on the number of facilities allowed to grow marijuana in the state. For the first 18 months, there would be a ceiling of 28 grow facilities. The previous bill did not mention a cap.

The amended bill comes in at 176 pages and includes: The agreed-upon tax rate of $42 per ounce. Localities would be able to impose a 3 percent retail tax on top of that. Towns that host marijuana growers would be able to impose a 2 percent tax, and towns with wholesalers could charge a 1 percent tax. Among the new amendments is a “transfer fee” to vertically integrated businesses that would ensure municipalities can claim their entire 8 percent tax revenue (2 percent tax on growers, 2 percent on processors, 1 percent on wholesalers, 3 percent on retail).

As in the previous version, individuals would be permitted to get weed delivered directly to them; retailers would be able to create consumption areas for cannabis on the premises (both indoors and outdoors), as long as they obtain permission from both the state and local governing body.

Four classes of licenses

The license system would still be divided into four classes: wholesalers that sell to retail; processors that process cannabis products and sell to wholesalers or retailers but not to consumers; retailers that sell to consumers; and grower/cultivators. The legislation does not dictate a specific number of licenses that would be made available. Rather, retail licenses would be given “to meet the market demands of the State.”

Still in this version of the bill is the requirement that applicants — with the exception of some small-business owners and minority-owned businesses — seeking to be a licensed cannabis business must sign an agreement they will hire workers represented by labor unions.

The bill would also require each licensed cannabis retailer to use an “electronic identity verification system” approved by the commission to ensure compliance with the legislation.

There is no mention in the bill of cultivating marijuana plants in one’s home for personal use. That had been a sticking point for many cannabis activists throughout this process; they maintain that without allowing individuals to grow their own plants, the state is creating a system that will line the pockets of wealthy marijuana industry officials.

Weed businesses welcome

The amended bill also identifies “impact zones”— the first geographic areas that cannabis businesses will be located in — Atlantic City, Bridgeton, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Hamilton Township, Irvington, Jersey City, Newark, Millville, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Trenton, and Vineland.

Despite this process moving forward at the state level, more than 50 locales have passed or are considering ordinances banning marijuana in some form: growth, use, or sales.

The bill allows municipalities to prohibit any cannabis establishment from operating within their borders, cap the number of licenses, enact a fine of $200 for consuming cannabis “edibles” in a public place, retain all files for violations in their jurisdiction, and maintain zoning restrictions.

Expungements

In terms of social justice, the bill would deschedule marijuana so it is no longer a Schedule I controlled substance. That would mean charges could be reduced from a “disorderly persons” charge to a “civil penalty and violation,” which brings with it a lesser consequence.

Under the bill, all pending marijuana charges and convictions for up to five pounds of the substance would be dismissed. That amount is much greater than the 28 grams legalized under the bill which caused some lawmakers serious concerns.

Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren/Hunterdon) bristled at the five-pound number at the hearing. Scutari responded that the way current state law is set up creates a bracket system for marijuana possession charges. One bracket is under 50 grams, another from 50 grams to up to five pounds.

Under the bill, possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana would only be subject to a civil penalty of $50. The reason for the five-pound carve-out, Scutari said, is to protect individuals caught with 50 grams from being lumped into a higher bracket and given a more serious penalty.

As the agreement reached last week noted, there would also be an expedited “virtual expungement” to streamline the process for release from incarceration, probation, or parole for those whose past convictions would become legal under the bill.