Sweeney pushes for second constitutional amendment on pot

Senate president wants another amendment, this time directing portion of cannabis tax to communities of color
File photo: Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, left, and Senate President Steve Sweeney

As the debate drags on over how to regulate and tax a legal marijuana industry, state Senate President Steve Sweeney told NJ Spotlight News Monday he is drafting a second constitutional amendment to guarantee that cannabis tax revenue be specifically earmarked for urban communities most impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

New Jersey voters already passed a constitutional amendment on Nov. 3, by a 2 – 1 margin, that will make recreational use of marijuana legal as of Jan. 1. That much is certain, but the arrival of legal weed has been complicated by disagreements about legislation defining the rules and regulations governing the new industry. Efforts to pass such a measure have bogged down in recent weeks over several issues; the bill has been pulled twice at the last minute before a vote.

Sweeney’s proposed amendment would seek to address some of the main sticking points slowing the legislation.

Social justice and cannabis tax

First and foremost: How much should the state tax cannabis and how should that revenue be spent? In the latest version of the bill, a “social justice excise fee” would be added to a 7% sales tax. Both houses of the Legislature agree the excise fee would be based on market price, and should be used only for “impact zones” that have been adversely affected by marijuana enforcement, which has resulted in people of color being unfairly targeted.

The Senate’s version of the bill would earmark 70% of the sales-tax revenue for the impact communities. Sweeney said the proposed constitutional amendment would use the same criteria for the sales tax and the excise fee.

“This is long overdue,” Sweeney said. “We have to ensure money gets put back in those communities that have suffered.”

As social advocates have repeatedly stressed, there is no guarantee that future legislatures and governors will be bound by the racial and social justice intent of bill. How revenue is spent is a yearly process that is codified in the state budget. Legally, the only way to effectively guarantee that funds are dedicated to a specific source is with a constitutional amendment.

If a second constitutional amendment is passed next November, it would become effective on Jan. 1, 2023. It would not affect the Jan. 1 legalization deadline now in place.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Confident’ of consensus

“Negotiations with the Senate and governor are active and ongoing regarding adult-use cannabis-enabling legislation,” said Regina Wilder, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin  “We are confident we will reach consensus.”

Sweeney and other senators hosted a virtual roundtable on Monday with legal experts and social justice advocates to solicit more community input on the issue.

Also pending is a separate measure that would decriminalize possession. The Senate last week, passed a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana. But the Assembly did not vote on the bill because of objections over a last-minute addition that would dramatically reduce penalties for the possession of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms.

Last week, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal directed all state, county and municipal law enforcement to suspend juvenile and adult cases involving only marijuana possession.

“It simply does not make sense or serve justice to proceed with prosecutions on charges that may be foreclosed soon through legislative action,” he said.

Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012, and New Jersey was one of four states this year where voters were being asked whether they support adult-use legalization of pot for nonmedical purposes.

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