Senate passes medical marijuana expansion bill, heads to Assembly

Senate Democrats voted 33-4 to pass a bill widely expanding medical marijuana availability across New Jersey, nearly doubling the number of dispensaries from 12 to 23 and increasing the amount of medicinal weed patients could buy from two to three ounces a month. It would also regulate edible cannabis and make getting a doctor’s prescription far easier.

“This is a darn good bill that staff and others have worked really hard on in a smart way, informed by the evidence, informed by the data, that will move New Jersey to top of the pack on a national level in terms of treating patients,” said Sen. Joe Vitale.

The bill would phase out the sales tax on medical marijuana in 2025 and allow home delivery. Almost 47,000 New Jerseyans now have a medical marijuana card. The bill would also create a state commission to oversee implementation of the new law. But critics argued medical cannabis should not be taxed at all, that at an estimated $350 an ounce it’s too expensive.

“This is not covered by any prescription plan or subsidy. It comes out of pocket, period. So that poor people, working people of the state, who need this medical marijuana have to pay for it in cash, hard earned cash,” said Sen. Bob Singer. “To add sales tax to medical marijuana is a crime. And why is that a crime? In no other case of any medicine in the state of New Jersey do we charge sales tax.”

“I’m going to vote for this bill because I’ve heard from many of my constituents who said they need it, so I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Sen. Shirley Turner.

Some see this bill as a de facto plan B, designed to increase adult access to marijuana after legislation to legalize recreational weed died recently for lack of votes in the Senate. Senate President Steve Sweeney says, yes, it is.

“It’s the California model. If I have anxiety, I get a prescription. If I get a twitch, I can get a prescription. If I don’t feel good today, I can get a prescription. So yeah, that’s pretty much legalizing it in my mind,” Sweeney said.

The bill passed the Assembly once and will head back there for final approval after an amendment in the Senate Thursday. It’s expected to go to the governor, but Murphy’s signature is not a given. Although he’s supported the bill’s broader policies, Murphy’s raised questions over creating a commission and other items, raising the possibility that frustrated Democrats might have to deal with yet another conditional veto on top of more than 60 already issued by the governor.

“I’m frustrated because I was here for eight years with a Republican administration and didn’t run into the problems that we’re having like we’re having here,” Sweeney said. “The problem we have here is they just, after we pass the bills, that’s when they weigh in. And that’s a problem. You’re supposed to do it well before that. And at some point, the Legislature has to say, ‘Hey if you’re going to continue to do this, then we’re going to start overriding.’”

The Assembly is scheduled to meet in early June when they could vote on the amended medical marijuana bill. It would then go to the governor’s desk, where he may or may not pick up the veto pen.