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If Sweeney Wants to Legalize Pot, He’ll Need NJ’s Mayors in His Corner

At League of Municipalities conference, it’s clear that getting votes for tokes is going to take more than just lining up legislators

Marijuana cultivation

State Senate President Steve Sweeney has drawn a line in the sand regarding adult-use marijuana legalization, but local leaders have their own recommendations and concerns.

“We’ll have (a bill) out of both committees by the end of the month,” Sweeney told reporters at the League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City, meaning a legislative debate on the subject could begin within days.

Hours before Sweeney made that announcement, local leaders gathered at the conference to hear recommendations from several members from the League’s marijuana taskforce. They were not overwhelmingly optimistic about legalization efforts. Mayor after mayor stepped to the microphone during the question-and-answer period to decry the process and ask for more details on what is still a nebulous bill. They said they’ve heard little to assuage their fears about tax rate, law enforcement, and potential expungements — among other issues.

Rocky road to legalization

Thus far, the legalization process in New Jersey has been less than smooth: deadlines have been set and missed; campaign promises have been collecting dust; and there are two bills in the Senate and no accompanying proposals in the Assembly. The two bills made public in the Senate are S-2702 and S-2703, but the one being dissected and amended in the Legislature has not yet been formally introduced. If Sweeney’s commitment prevails, New Jersey could be the second state in the country to legalize cannabis through the state Legislature rather than a public ballot measure.

“I need the governor’s help with some votes, so far he hasn’t come up with any, Sweeney said, “and the only way something like this gets passed legislatively is with all three branches pushing together. The speaker (Craig Coughlin) and I worked very hard to come up with a bill. There are still some things the governor doesn’t agree on.” He added, “…if they’re not going to lobby any votes for us then it won’t get done.

According to Sweeney, legalization in New Jersey will look less like one bill and more like a package proposal. He said, “There’s a medical bill. There’s an adult-use bill. And there’s a separate social justice piece that Sen. (Sandra) Cunningham is doing. We want to do all of them together.”

But the same benefits to legalizing a package of bills through the Legislature can also be drawbacks: Lawmakers are trying to hammer out the language to address enforcement, taxation, record expungement, retail sales, licensing, and other crucial issues simultaneously. Other states, in comparison, have legalized first and are now working through many of the snags and complications.

But Sweeney added that ultimately, nothing will get done without Murphy’s attention and endorsement. “It really is going to take the administration to weigh in on this and yes I am saying the governor needs to get me some votes.”

Answerable to all

The legislators Sweeney wants votes from will be held accountable by their constituents, mayors, freeholders, and council members — all of whom made their concerns apparent at the morning panel at the league conference.

The panel was led by league 1st Vice President Colleen Mahr, mayor of Fanwood, and included mayors who chaired task force subcommittees, including Mayors Wilda Diaz of Perth Amboy, Tim McDonough of Hope, Gary Passanante of Somerdale, and Michael Venezia of Bloomfield. Among the experts who spoke were Jeff Brown, assistant commissioner, Medical Marijuana Program, New Jersey Department of Health; Todd M. Hay, regional vice president of Pennoni and chairman of the Branchburg planning; Hugh O’Beirne, president of New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association; and Kabili Tayari, Office of the Mayor, Jersey City.

The recommendations have yet to be released publicly, though those in attendance announced them yesterday.

Talking about tax rate

A major concern for local officials was the tax rate. The proposed rate in the as-yet-to-be introduced draft bill is set at 12 percent, with cities and towns able to impose an additional 2 percent. The version made public, however, proposes a tax rate on recreational marijuana that would start at 10 percent in the first year and gradually increase — to 15 percent the next year, 20 percent the year after that, with a final goal of 25 percent. As it stands, the 12 percent would be among the lowest rates for states that have legalized cannabis.

The proposed 2 percent levy, however, was deemed “unacceptable” by many local leaders. The idea is to keep the rate low initially in order to compete with the black market, something that other states have recommended.

“We don’t think that’s enough,” McDonough said. “If we’re going to have to do the enforcement of this, there’s no way we can do all of this under the 2 percent (levy).” He shared the subcommittee's recommendations that legislation should include language guaranteeing that municipalities receive a “dedicated income,” meaning that the funds “won’t just go into the general fund.” They’re also asking for additional revenue from the state for implementation, which will include law enforcement, health inspection, drug education, court expenses, and more. Further, the municipalities want to receive a minimum of 50 percent of the tax revenue collected from the sales of recreational and medical marijuana.

It’s a big ask and one that they’re unlikely to get under the current draft proposal being considered.

Tension in Trenton

The tax rate is something that’s caused political tension in Trenton as well. Sweeney has said firmly that the 12 percent tax is as high as he’s willing to go, while Murphy has said he’d like to go higher (perhaps as high as 25 percent, which he proposed in his 2018-2019 budget).

Sweeney said keeping the tax rate low is an important step in bleeding out the black market: If the tax rate is too high, he said, everyone will just keep buying illegally.

But it’s just not enough for the mayors. Tayari addressed Sweeney directly Wednesday afternoon, faulting the Senate president for not giving local officials enough of a say in the process and enough of a cut of the profits.

“The majority of the 565 mayors are united around the fact that the 2 percent [tax] is not enough,” Tayari said.

Sweeney held firm and said there’s no reason for the towns to get any more than 2 percent.

“We’re going to pay for your officers to get trained. You’re going to get a percentage of something that you don’t have now,” Sweeney responded.

“I think that there’s not a hard line in the sand, we would like 5 percent,” Mahr said. “We don’t understand why 2 percent is the line in the sand to be honest with you.”

“If the bill is coming as quickly as we’re hearing it, I will tell you that five, six hundred people sat in conferences today, and the questions that were raised with no legitimate answers is significant.” She called for more education for mayors, “so we can go back home and talk about it and make real good decisions when the clock starts ticking.”

The price of law enforcement

The task force also rehashed serious concerns about how municipalities will be able to train and support law enforcement if cannabis were to become legal. Several panelists raised the point that there is still no completely reliable test for cannabis intoxication, as there is for other DUI offenses.

Venezia, chair of the public safety subcommittee, said, “safeguards need to be put in place to protect our citizens.”

His recommendations focused on giving municipalities as much control as possible. He said each municipality must be empowered to decide the level it wants to be involved (such as the right to opt in and opt out). Any facility located in the municipality must adhere to the conditions it imposes, including local licensing laws, security protocols, and fees to offset the impact of legalization on the local budget.

Local leaders, advocates and residents also all expressed concern that there is inadequate language in either of the publicly proposed bills to address the issue of record expungement, a topic that many experts and advocates have said is their number one concern. The ACLU and NAACP have said they will not support any package that moves forward without this side of the equation.

Wiping the slate clean

Expungement would allow for anyone previously convicted of marijuana use to have their record wiped clean. Todd Edwards, the political action chairman of the NJ-NAACP, said, “The social justice part is being watched. The expungement piece for us at the NAACP is a deal breaker. We want to make sure that we are going to have expungement.”

Thus far, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano’s bill, A-3620 is the only public proposal putting forward a comprehensive plan for expungement, though Sweeney said Sen. Cunningham’s recently signed legislation would apply in the case of legalization and give low-level offenders the ability to apply for expungement online and have it granted automatically after 10 years even without any action on their part.

And even with Sweeney’s new deadline, for advocates like Leo Bridgewater, an army veteran and Trenton resident, things aren’t moving fast enough. He helped found the New Jersey Cannabis Commission and leads the New Jersey Chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana and says that many issues may be left for legislators to grapple with for years to come.

“The problem is this: Our current Legislature and Assembly is filled with two types of people — Jetsons and Flintstones,” Bridgewater said at a panel, “We’re asking Flintstones to make the rules on Jetson’s topics. Some subjects are a little bit too advanced for this particular body.”

Though working out the details of the bill is keeping it in committee for much longer than anyone anticipated, local officials are asking for more consideration on their end.

“It’s time we really start to talk about this in our hometowns, because it’s coming,” Mahr said.

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