New Jersey Cannabis Legalization Faces Usual Obstacles

man smoking a joint with a mustache

It’s expected that New Jersey cannabis legalization will happen this year and the state's pot-friendly governor is eager to get the ball rolling. Gov. Phil Murphy says that legalizing marijuana will help to right the wrongs done by the war on drugs and allow law enforcement to focus on serious and violent crimes.

"The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people's futures, so we will legalize marijuana. And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just." Medical marijuana is already legal in the state but lawmakers have yet to agree on cannabis legalization for adult use, aka recreational use. Taxes and criminal justice are the two main issues slowing down the legislative process.

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Expungement is Key for Criminal Justice Reform

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Just like what’s happening in New York, some politicians in the state won't pass a New Jersey cannabis legalization bill unless it has certain conditions making amends to communities affected by the war on drugs. A person was arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey approximately every 22 minutes in the year 2012, and African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey at nearly 3 times the rate of Caucasians. However, that is only the average in the state.

The arrest rate for African-Americans is much higher in certain areas of the state. Black people are arrested at up to 18 times the rate of white people in cities like Lacey Township and Westville. Hoboken arrested black people at a whopping 25 times the rate of white people in 2016, despite being less than 2 percent of the population.

Law Enforcement Costs

dollar bills and bag of marijuana

Criminal justice concerns aren't the only issue with New Jersey cannabis legalization becoming reality. The state spends nearly $127 million annually enforcing New Jersey's cannabis laws, an enormous amount of money that could be used for education and public safety.

The governor tweeted that he wanted to end the racial disparity of marijuana arrests in the state as well as save the state money. "NJ’s marijuana laws cost $143M/yr & come w a 3:1 racial disparity in arrests."

Jamel Holley (D) is an Assemblyman in the state representing the 20th Legislative District, and he has proposed expunging low-level cannabis convictions. In fact, Holley says that it is imperative the Legislature incorporate criminal justice provisions within any legislation on adult-use marijuana for him to support the bill.

"I said to myself, OK, you are not going to stand by and watch anyone create and do this big business, which we all know exists, without addressing justice, real and specific justice. I've also said that same thing to my colleagues," said Holley. "There would be no way that I would support legalization of marijuana without expungement," reported The New York Times.

Holley saw the damage done by the drug war first-hand growing up in Roselle, New Jersey, including overly-strict sentences with the effects lasting a lifetime for petty pot crimes. Holley backs a measure that expunges the records of low-level marijuana offenders and gives priority for commercial licensing to minorities, veterans, and women.

Drug Charge Expungements

cop car near city

New Jersey wants to do what California ultimately did regarding expungements by automatically erasing low-level pot convictions. California lawmakers simplified the process by automatically expunging the convictions instead of making people appeal through the court system. California also has grants and loans available for those convicted of petty pot crimes seeking to open a cannabis business.

Holley is also backing a plan that would clear more serious drug convictions such as low-level cocaine and heroin sales. Senator Sandra B. Cunningham (D) also backs the proposal. Their proposal would erase nonviolent convictions for defendants if they have no additional convictions after a 10-year-period. The proposal would be especially beneficial to former addicts who have gotten clean and sober.

Roseanne Scotti is the New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and says that criminal justice needs to be addressed. "I think we've just reached the point where there's enough information, where just saying the right things on social justice or hinting at the right things on business opportunities won't cut it." Addressing criminal justice within legislation to legalize marijuana will ensure that talk becomes action.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal says that the expungement of existing records is the most crucial in legalizing recreational marijuana in the state. "It is my hope that if they do go down this road that the social justice expungement piece will be part of the new legislation," said the attorney general.

He added that law enforcement agencies have already begun training in preparation of New Jersey cannabis legalization. "If the legislature and the governor decide to legalize marijuana, I think from a law enforcement perspective, we need to be prepared with additional drug recognition experts – that’s what will be required to determine if people are under the influence of marijuana and driving and breaking motor vehicle laws – so we need to step up the number of DREs, or drug recognition experts, we have," he concluded.

Tax Debate Delays New Jersey Cannabis Legalization

cannabis nug

Just like the roadblock other states pushing for legalization are experiencing, a debate about how much to tax recreational marijuana in the state is also a point of contention between the governor and a state senator, resulting in the Mary Jane delay. Gov. Phil Murphy wants to tax recreational marijuana at a rate of 25 percent to fund his ambitious budget. The president of the New Jersey Senate, Steve Sweeney (D), only wants recreational marijuana in the state to be taxed at a rate of 12 percent or less.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, (D) who first introduced a New Jersey cannabis legalization bill in 2014, had proposed an annual tax increase on marijuana which would start out low but would increase annually until it reached the governor's ideal tax rate of 25 percent over a five-year-period.

The reality of his New Jersey cannabis legalization bill might have marijuana taxed at a rate of seven percent to start in an effort to encourage the development of the legal market and demise of the illegal market under Scutari's bill and escalate annually for several years.

The rate would have increased to 10 percent the second year and to 15 percent the third year. During the fourth year, the rate would have increased to 20 percent and max out at 25 percent during the fifth year, possibly an effort to appease the governor, but the most recent proposal settled on a 12 percent tax rate. Local municipalities may add a 2 percent tax on marijuana.

Scutari's proposal wants to legalize marijuana in the state and regulate it in the same manner as alcohol, and polls indicate that New Jersey cannabis legalization is supported by residents of the State. A poll conducted by Rutgers University found that 45 percent of people in New Jersey say that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and 58 percent of voters support legalizing recreational marijuana.

Adults 21 years of age and above would be allowed to buy and consume recreational marijuana legally with measures in place to prevent illegal marijuana sales to people under 21 years of age.

The proposal is also tailor-made to prevent gangs and drug cartels from continuing to profit from illegal marijuana sales by diverting the revenue to legal entities. Gov. Murphy says New Jersey legalizing cannabis will help to combat the illegal market.

"People have got to remember: We’re not inventing marijuana. This exists right now. It’s not regulated. It’s in the hands of the bad guys. Kids are exposed. It’s not taxed. And the inequities, particularly along racial lines, continue," he said.

New Jersey could legalize and tax marijuana and the spend the $127 million savings on education, law enforcement focusing on serious crime, and drug prevention. Some of the funds will also be used to reinvest in communities targeted by the war on drugs.

Being arrested for marijuana possession negatively affects a person's ability to find adequate employment, housing, and educational opportunities. Tax revenue generated from New Jersey cannabis legalization would be used for drug treatment and education in the communities to ensure public safety and civil rights.

Seventy-nine percent of New Jersey residents think that people convicted for petty marijuana possession should have their records expunged, and Scutari's bill would expunge marijuana convictions automatically. "Ours would make eligibility for all of those people automatic and immediate," he told The New York Times.

People currently convicted of marijuana possession have up to a five-year-wait before they are eligible for dismissed charges.

New Jersey Cannabis Law

small jar of craft cannabis

If Scutari's New Jersey cannabis law-proposal comes to fruition, adults 21 years of age or older will legally be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. People will also be allowed to purchase and possess up to 16 ounces of solid cannabis-infused products or up to 72 ounces of liquid cannabis-infused goods. Concentrated forms of marijuana will be legal as long as it is under seven grams.

Public consumption of cannabis will not be permitted under the cannabis law, especially smoking marijuana, so puff-puff-passing a doobie outdoors in New Jersey is not a wise idea just yet.

The new law also makes it illegal to sell marijuana to people who are under age and will incur those who do a hefty fine. Anyone caught providing a minor with marijuana will be fined $250 if it is their first violation. People caught a violating the minor law a second time will be fined $500, and those caught a third time will be fined $1,000 and could have their commercial license revoked.

Medical marijuana would also be expanded under a companion bill and would increase the amount of marijuana a medical cardholder may possess. Medical marijuana consumers would be able to possess three ounces of marijuana every month, as opposed to the two ounces permitted currently.

Medical cardholders would also be allowed to consume edibles as well as visit dispensaries statewide. Current laws require a cardholder to register with local dispensaries in order to purchase medical marijuana.

Scutari also wants to establish a commission to oversee the recreational marijuana program in the state. "I sponsored the bill to legalize cannabis. Let's use what we learned from legalizing casinos," said Scutari. The senator notes that the New Jersey Casino Control Commission was established in the 70's and was successful in bringing regulatory oversight to the gambling industry efficiently.

He says that the Cannabis Regulatory Commission could be established and operate in a similar manner as the Casino Commission. The commission would have the authority to approve, deny, or suspend licenses without needing legislative approval, thereby avoiding a lot of red tape and ensuring a timely outcome.

Scutari argues that establishing the commission will ensure an efficient application process and attract investors. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission would have 90 days to process applications for new medical marijuana dispensaries, manufacturers and cultivators.  The senator wants to establish a five-member, full-time New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

Timeline for New Jersey Cannabis Legalization Continues to be a Mystery

pile of marijuana joints for valentine's day gift

The only thing holding up legalization is the spat between Murphy and Sweeney over how much to tax recreational marijuana. The governor is scheduled to meet with leaders of the legislature within a week to discuss raising the minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana. The arguing politicians have held up New Jersey cannabis legalization for months, and it is unclear how soon recreational cannabis will be a reality in the state.

Once Sweeney and Murphy do have an agreement, the bills will then need to pass through the Assembly and Senate before becoming law. And even if the two sides do finally reach an agreement, there may not be enough support in Assembly or Senate for the bills to pass.

If you are in New Jersey and like to consume wacky tobaccy, you may want to hold on to your medical marijuana license for a while longer. Until the politicians straighten things out, it may be a long wait before New Jersey cannabis legalization is a reality in New Jersey.