Last week, it appeared all was well on the New Jersey cannabis front. Voters had overwhelmingly endorsed the legalization of recreational marijuana, and two critical bills seemed headed for passage Monday. Then things started unraveling.
First, the enabling legislation to launch legal weed was abruptly pulled on Thursday. Then on Monday, a second bill to decriminalize weed — all but considered a done deal — faltered as well. That measure to decriminalize up to 6 ounces of cannabis was suddenly yanked in the Assembly Monday morning, primarily because of a last-minute addition to the Senate version of the bill, which would also dramatically downgrade penalties for possession of 1 ounce or less of psilocybin, better known as “magic mushrooms.”
“We do not have consensus on the legislation,” is all Assembly spokesman Kevin McArdle would say. Those familiar with the caucus discussion confirmed the point of disagreement was the mysterious appearance of language covering the psychedelic drug.
The magic-mushroom amendment was actually inserted last week by a Senate staffer, NJ Spotlight News has learned, and was approved by the bill’s primary sponsors. Some have called the provision overreach; others think it’s a poison pill.
Magic mushrooms in the mix
Despite the Assembly’s reluctance, the Senate nonetheless passed its version of the bill — mushrooms and all — Monday afternoon. Approved by a vote of 29-4, the measure would decriminalize possession of up to 6 ounces of cannabis. Distribution of up to 1 ounce would carry a civil penalty for the first offense and would be a fourth-degree crime for any subsequent offenses.
“I am proud to have been a driving force behind what will be the most progressive decriminalization bill in the country,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), one of the sponsors. “This is yet another step towards bringing justice and equity to historically impacted communities.”
But it was the mushrooms that soon took center stage during the floor debate.
“How can we decriminalize a psychedelic drug called ‘magic mushrooms,’ when the basis for the decriminalization is the disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities who are arrested for marijuana?” said state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex).
Sen. Ron Rice, one of the bill’s sponsors, urged that it move forward. The social- and criminal-justice aspects have been a key part of the legalization movement. At alarming rates, people of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana offenses, according to the ACLU.
“We keep making excuses for not getting things done,” Rice (D-Essex) said.
Laying groundwork for grass
By a 2-1 margin, New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment earlier this month to legalize limited amounts of recreational marijuana, effective Jan. 1, 2021. But their approval requires the Legislature to pass a bill that will establish the rules, regulations and structure of a marijuana industry — including how much it can be taxed and how that revenue should be spent.
Monday’s delay of the decriminalization bill is merely the latest setback of many in the five-year legalization movement. Last week, the Senate and Assembly pulled the legislation that would have created that regulatory framework.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor, expected to have it come before both chambers of the Legislature on Monday as well.
But his bill disappointed stakeholders on two fronts. First, it did not specifically earmark sales-tax revenue from marijuana sales to be utilized in minority communities disproportionately affected by the drug war. Second, others thought it didn’t generate sufficient revenue. Scutari has said since he will consider an additional tax that would be dedicated to those communities.
Gov. Phil Murphy said in passing Monday that his office and legislative leaders recently had a good meeting.