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2 Steps Forward, 1 Back — Lawmakers Forge Ahead with Trio of Pot Bills

Expanded access to medical cannabis; easier, more extensive expungements; ending arrests for low-level marijuana crimes: It’s all in a day’s work in Trenton

Marijuana plant
Credit: Shutterstock

After a tumultuous day in Trenton, New Jersey lawmakers advanced a trio of marijuana-related legislation that would expand access to medicinal cannabis, make it easier for nonviolent drug offenders to step out of the shadows of their criminal records, and — in a surprise bill — end arrests for some low-level marijuana crimes.

And while another committee canceled its vote on one of the measures Monday, reportedly to give members more time to discuss the bill, it is possible some of the proposals could be posted for a vote before the full Assembly and Senate as early as May 30.

The measures included a new decriminalization proposal, passed by the Assembly appropriations committee, that would impose a $50 civil fine for anyone caught with up to two ounces of marijuana, rather than the arrest called for under current law, as well as a hefty fine and up to 18 months in jail. The panel released this bill and the medical expansion and expungement legislation.

Pushing pot

The push to further open the state’s medical marijuana program and advance bills to offer second chances for individuals who get caught with small amounts of drugs comes after months of legislative starts and stalls. It also reflects leaders’ inabilities to pass a plan to legalize adult recreational use that Gov. Phil Murphy has long urged.

But on Monday the Senate health and Assembly appropriations committees both voted to support a bipartisan proposal to nearly double the number of permits available for medical marijuana operations to 23, including provisions to encourage small and minority- and women-owned businesses. The legislation would add to a number of regulatory reforms that have grown the program, which now reaches some 46,300 patients.

The bill would also allow patients to obtain up to three ounces of medicine a month, as opposed to the current limit of two ounces, and require medication to be clearly labeled, including a production date. It would also allow for more medical professionals to recommend the treatment, make it easier to add more qualifying conditions to the state’s list, and eliminate the 6.6 percent sales tax in 2025.

The Senate bill (10/2426), was also amended significantly to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to create highly controlled “consumption areas” so patients have a legal place to ingest the medication. Further, it would permit municipalities that host cannabis businesses to impose a 2 percent sales tax of their own. Earlier versions of the bill included language gradually phasing the sales tax out by 2024. This version, however, maintains that 2 percent in full until 2025, and allows localities with a dispensary to tack on a 2 percent transfer tax as well.

Certifying cannabis workers

Lawmakers also added a requirement that employees at medical marijuana facilities obtain a state “handler’s certificate,” although details were scarce. And it banned the state from using someone’s status as a patient or a cannabis worker as grounds to investigate their parenting or take away their children, among other things.

“While the bill is not perfect,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), “it’s still light years ahead of our present program, and at a time when it is exactly appropriate.” O’Scanlon, who sponsored the measure with Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chairman, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who has led the fight for legalization, said he would have preferred it include a home-grow pilot and eliminate the tax sooner.

Kelli Arthur Hykes, the director of government relations at Weedmaps, a national company that connects patients with dispensaries, praised New Jersey’s latest medical marijuana bill before the Senate health committee Monday. She said their work with stakeholders over the past two years helped the state “develop what has become the most comprehensive and thoughtful cannabis reform policy in the country.”

But even the revised bill doesn’t go far enough, Hykes said, noting the product is still too costly for some and unavailable to patients in the federal Veterans Administration system. She said Weedmaps is “genuinely disappointed” lawmakers did not manage to pass a legalization bill — which was pulled in late March when leadership failed to secure sufficient votes — but added, “we are not convinced the opportunity to address adult use in this legislative session is lost.”

Ballot question for legalization

However, Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced last week he would push to put the legalization issue to voters through a November 2020 ballot question, conceding there were not enough votes in the Legislature. He also reiterated his support for expanding medical marijuana and urged lawmakers to advance some kind of expungement bill, in which the state would essentially erase from public view the criminal records of certain nonviolent drug offenders. Some 600 people are arrested each week for low-level drug crimes, he said.

To help reduce that number and make it easier for former criminals to obtain employment, housing, and other services, the Senate health committee also voted on Monday for an expungement bill sponsored by Sweeney, Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), and Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson.) The bill (S-3205) makes it easier for certain offenders to have their criminal records expunged, reducing the current waiting period and opening the process to people who had a greater number of convictions.

The program would only be available for certain nonviolent drug offenses, and sales or distribution convictions related to limited quantities of marijuana, hashish, or other drugs — if the court finds compelling circumstances to grant the relief. Originally limited to one ounce of cannabis and five grams of hash, the bill was amended Monday to allow expungement in cases involving up to five pounds of pot. (Convictions for murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, pornography, and other violent or sexual crimes are ineligible.)

Under the new bill, those convicted of low-level crimes would have to wait five years (down from the current requirement of six) to submit their expungement application to the Superior Court in the county in which they were tried.

Wiping the slate clean

The bill also creates a “clean slate” expungement process allowing those who have committed multiple crimes or are otherwise not eligible to immediately seek to clear their records the chance to apply after 10 years following release from prison, complete probation or complete parole, whichever came last.

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) estimated more than 200,000 individuals will be eligible for expungements if the bill is signed.

Akil Roper with Legal Services of New Jersey, which defends low-income residents, called the bill “smart reform” that can truly help those who were incarcerated regain their lives. “We all benefit when we enable people to lift themselves up and become gainfully employed,” he said.

The decriminalization bill (A-5325) was scheduled to be introduced in the judiciary committee earlier in the day but was held at the last second and reporters were told it would also be pulled from the appropriations committee later in the afternoon. The bill’s prime sponsor, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano ( D-Union), said there would need to be “more internal discussion” before the bill could be voted on. The bill includes some expungement language, but primarily would cease arrests for low-level marijuana crimes

Shortly after the appropriations committee began, however, it was announced the bill would be heard after all. With little comment, it was released along with the other two marijuana bills.

Like the other legislation, it contains language that would enable faster and easier expungements for those with past cannabis crimes. Those with records containing possession charges of up to five pounds of marijuana before the bill takes effect could apply for expungement as soon as the measure is signed. It is still awaiting a companion measure in the Senate.

Quijano made a point to note on Monday that the measure is more a “regrading” bill than a decriminalization one because it also reduces the consequences for many other marijuana crimes.

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