New Jersey lawmakers take another major step toward launching legal cannabis

On Thursday, two New Jersey committees advanced legislation that will launch the state’s adult use cannabis industry. The New Jersey Assembly Budget and Appropriations committee voted to release A21, while the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee also passed S21, their version of the bill. Full floor votes on the legalization framework could come before Thanksgiving, though differences now need to be negotiated.

On Election Day, voters in New Jersey approved a ballot measure to legalize cannabis for adult use, which has since catalyzed legalization conversations in neighboring states, including Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. A separate bill in New Jersey that would decriminalize up to six ounces of cannabis has stalled amid concerns over reduction of penalties related to psilocybin possession. 

The Assembly vote came after more than three hours of testimony on bill amendments.The conversation again highlighted that equity provisions don’t go far enough for many advocates, and fears that license caps could ice out equity applicants. Another recurring comment from speakers? Allow homegrown cannabis. 

Also, caps on licenses remain in the Assembly version—for example, the number of cultivation licenses will be capped at 37 for the first two years—with the exception of microbusiness licenses. Senator Paul Sarlo said during yesterday’s Senate committee meeting that their version will strip caps on licenses, noting that “our language will be different than what the Assembly has.” 

This is just one of the differences that the chambers will have to reconcile before the bill can head to Governor Phil Murphy. The differences, Sarlo said, “will allow us to negotiate.”

The proposed caps on licenses have upset some advocates. 

“These caps would do little to advance racial justice – in fact, it’ll continue to perpetuate an unjust status quo. There’s no doubt,” the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Tweeted

“Caps make it almost impossible for equity candidates – people + families impacted by prohibition – to thrive in the new industry. Caps also drastically reduce funds collected from taxes on legal cannabis sales that could be reinvested into communities harmed by the War on Drugs,” they added. 

For some time, the Senate committee’s discussion centered on cannabis in the workplace, and how to balance employees who want to legally consume cannabis during their time off, while ensuring that people aren’t coming to work impaired. 

Over in the Assembly, John Burzichelli, chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, said that the legislative process is never going to be perfect, and legislation is refined over time. 

“Legislation is a living, breathing thing. So, as we bring this to life, it doesn’t mean that this is the final version, forever and ever. So everyone has to stay engaged on this,” he said. 

Assemblymember Annette Quijano outlined some of the amendments, which “represent a commitment to hope and opportunity,” especially for communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws. 

As amended, the Assembly version proposes a social excise tax on cannabis cultivators, which would be used for social justice causes. Other amendments include a fair employment provision, as well as a reciprocity amendment, to “make sure that people from other states and nations can come and participate in the New Jersey market,” Senator Nicholas Scutari, longtime supporter of cannabis legalization and sponsor of the bill, said at the start of the hearing. 

“The social and economic justice provided by this bill are major steps forward towards greater hope and opportunity for all New Jerseyans,” Quijano said, urging lawmakers to advance the bill. 

Scutari said that the amendments don’t change the intent of the original legislation. 

“These amendments make the bill and the new cannabis industry more equitable, more efficient, and potentially garner additional revenue for different sources,” Scutari said. “By implementing a regulated system that permits people over twenty one to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use, we bring marijuana out of the underground market into a controlled, regulated marketplace where we’ll tax it and regulate it just like alcohol.” 

Since the first hearing earlier this week, Scutari said he’s received “dozens of memos” that contained hundreds of suggested amendments, and that the current amended bill makes a “very strong bill even stronger.” 

“I think we’ve come up with a very ingenious way to raise funds, but to continue to allow the marketplace to grow, and be hopefully competitive with the illicit market,” Scutari said. 

Assemblymember Kevin Rooney asked about home growing, and whether residents would ever be allowed to grow small amounts for their own consumption. Many others also shared this concern during the public comment period. 

“We can theoretically brew our own beer, make our own wine, in fact, have our own distillery at home for our own personal consumption. Do you see today, or any time in the near future, where we would allow residents, if they choose, to grow a specific small amount of plants at their own home for their own consumption?” Rooney asked. 

Scutari answered, “Me, personally? Yes, I believe that that’s something that’s the future for New Jersey.” But, he added, during his research on legal markets, he found that “one of their biggest problems” was home grown cannabis, because some people would grow far more than they needed. 

Scutari gave the example of someone living with a large family, and growing the allowed number of plants for each family member, even if they don’t consume the cannabis, and called it a “problem of policing.” 

“We believe that in order to have this industry evolve in the best fashion possible, that that shouldn’t be part of our initial regulation scheme,” Scutari said. 

Tauhid Chappell, a medical cannabis patient and cannabis educator and journalist, recommended that the bill, as written, should not be signed. 

“There still needs to be a lot of work and amendments that relate to equity, restitution, and reparations for black and brown residents of New Jersey, specifically those who have been impacted by cannabis prohibition and the larger war on drugs,” Chappell said, suggesting that 30% of the tax revenue go toward equity provisions like community reinvestment grants, a cannabis equity application grant, job training, technical assistance for licensing, workforce training, education development, and no interest loans. 

Chair Burzichelli again reiterated that this is the beginning of the legislative process, and that amendments will still come down the line. 

Jessica Gonzalez, general counsel for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, pointed out that the current version of the bill is too vague when it comes to equity. 

“Given the very recent news of this social equity excise fee, it’s imperative now more than ever that the community meant to receive the benefit of these new fees be explicitly defined,” Gonzalez said. 

For context, Colorado regulators and stakeholders have spent months hammering out how to define a disproportionately impacted area, as it pertains to equity. Jack Reed, of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said during Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division’s final hearing on proposed permanent rules, that regulators plan to build out a tool that is “national in scope” that will allow someone to enter an address, place a dot on a map, and learn whether this location qualifies as a disproportionately impacted area.

Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, joined others in expressing disappointment that amendments were released just before the hearing, which didn’t allow many of the attendees to read and digest the changes. 

“I don’t think we’re looking for perfection. We’re looking for justice. And we have examples of how this has happened in other places. So it’s not that New Jersey is happening in a vacuum. We have examples where our justice has been delayed and essentially denied everywhere else that we’ve had this conversation,” Ortiz said. 

Ortiz also urged specificity on equity. 

“I think the rush to push this is going to derail the process. It’s going to make it where we don’t meet deadlines. And so I want to make sure that there’s community reinvestment a real way that actually meets the damage done,” Ortiz said. 

More New Jersey lawmakers take another major step toward launching legal cannabis