Lawmakers agree on marijuana legalization bill but differ on tax-revenue constitutional amendment

Warning: marijuana legalization legislation may lead to long-term political conflicts and chronic delays
Credit: (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
File photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles, California, where recreational sales are legal.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said Monday he will continue to pursue a second constitutional amendment to dedicate the lion’s share of cannabis tax revenue to social justice programs. But he and his fellow senators appear to be alone on that front.

Though he reached an agreement Friday with Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use, neither the governor nor the speaker are supporting the Senate president’s new constitutional amendment.

Murphy deflected a question on the topic at his news briefing: “The direction that heads,” he said, “is the direction we all like. How we do that most effectively, I’ll leave for now.”

Through a spokesman, Coughlin restated what he said a week ago: “The speaker is having ongoing conversations with his leadership team and caucus. We have no further comment at this time.”

What is more puzzling to Sweeney, he said, is why the amendment is not being supported by the social justice advocates who have been demanding safeguards that cannabis revenue end up in the minority communities most adversely affected by years of marijuana arrests and prosecutions.

Social justice advocates withhold support   

“I am trying to figure out why the advocates won’t get behind this,” Sweeney said. “Maybe they are not aware this is the only way to guarantee the funds are reinvested in the communities most harmed.”

Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor at Bethel AME Church in Woodbury and executive director of Salvation and Social Justice, has been one of the loudest voices, demanding “reparations” for the victims in the so-called war on drugs. But he says he has “mixed feelings” on employing a constitutional amendment toward that end. “It could very likely fail with a majority white electorate who will likely not be favorable to taxes or reparative justice,” he said.

Even if the ballot doesn’t pass, “there is nothing gained and nothing lost,” Sweeney argues. Such a referendum could not be placed before the voters before next November.

ACLU Executive Director Amol Sinha also has raised concerns about the allocation of future cannabis revenue, and he too is not yet sold on a constitutional amendment.

“While the motivation to codify revenue allocation in our constitution is appreciated, the details really matter,” he said. “What happens if community needs change or if funding in one direction is no longer viable? We also need to know how the amendment would be implemented, how it would interact with the annual budget process, and what body will have oversight over these funds.”

The two houses of the Legislature have been at odds over a bill to enable legalization since voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment on Nov. 3, which will make recreational use legal as of Jan. 1. The two houses also have differed on a companion bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana.

But on Friday, Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin announced they reached a compromise agreement on both bills.

Legalization, decriminalization bills

The legalization bill now contains the following:

  • A limit of 37 licenses for marijuana growers for the first two years of sales. It does not limit micro-licenses for businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
  • It dedicates 70% of revenue from a 7% sales tax, as well as all funds generated from a variable “social justice excise fee” on growers for legal aid, health care and other social programs in minority communities disproportionately affected by the drug war.

The point of contention in the decriminalization bill was resolved by removing a Senate addition to reduced penalties for the possession of psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and instead move it to a separate bill. They are expected to vote and pass both bills Dec. 17.

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