New Jersey’s Top Senate Democrats Debate Cannabis Tax Revenue Allocation, Equity

On Monday, top New Jersey Senate Democrats met to debate the legalization implementation bill approved by the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, and decriminalization. 

While voters passed a cannabis legalization initiative on Election Day, lawmakers must still pass legislation to implement the framework. And, because the Senate and Assembly budget committees passed different implementation bills, the two sides must now negotiate and reconcile their versions. The virtual meeting was focused on cannabis tax revenue allocation, how much revenue would go to communities disproportionately affected by enforcement of cannabis laws, and expungement of cannabis possession records. 

Key New Jersey Democrats, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Nicholas Scutari, Senator Sandra Cunningham, and Senator Teresa Ruiz led the meeting, which was also attended by Kimberly Yonta, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, Richard Todd Edwards, the political action chair for the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Christian Estevez, the education and training coordinator for the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, and Joseph Krakora, a New Jersey public defender. 

“Everyone thinks this was about taxes and this is going to save the state budget. It’s not. And we never looked at it that way,” Sweeney said at the start of the meeting. Sweeney emphasized that a “majority,” or 70 percent, of all cannabis tax revenue generated, and 100 percent of the impact fees collected, go to “impacted communities” to “help change people’s lives.” The other 30 percent, Sweeney said, would go to law enforcement. 

Scutari, perhaps the longest-term and most vocal cannabis legalization supporter in the state legislature, said that cannabis tax allocation was “never really what I was concentrating the most on.” 

“I didn’t do this for the money, for the tax revenue. Although, it’s a nice secondary effect of it, taking a black market, an illicit market, and making it legalized, making job creation in the economy,” Scutari said, adding that he’s “certainly open-minded.” 

Senator Teresa Ruiz, sponsor of the decriminalization legislation, said that “unlike” Scutari, she was focused on where the revenue would be allocated from the earliest cannabis conversations. 

“I was very much interested in where the money was going, because if we were going to talk about creating a new frontier and an economic development opportunity, how could we not really have a discussion based in honesty?” Ruiz asked. “The truths are, the Black and brown communities have been most impacted here.” 

Cannabis tax rates, who controls revenue, and where revenues are allocated, often complicate legalization discussions, as happened in New York last year. In many states, cannabis tax rates are a balancing act between collecting fees to pay for the program and specific provisions, while not making legal products so expensive that people turn to unregulated operators. 

“We do not want to tax this to where we just drive everyone to the black market because the black market’s not going away. But if we do this right, we can gain a lot of market share. And that’s what we want to do. And we want to create jobs,” Sweeney said. 

Senator Cunningham said that she attended a “listening conference” this past weekend to listen to what people “thought about this new legislation,” though she got the sense that some people didn’t realize that lawmakers were “tying” the legislation to the job market and helping those who had been incarcerated get back on their feet. 

“One of the things that was clear is that people were probably more supportive of it if they knew what we were going to do with the dollars,” Cunningham said.  

While New Jersey officials expect out-of-staters to visit adult use shops once they’re up and running, that’s not the point of the legislation, Cunningham said. 

“We’re looking at it not just so someone from out of town can come in and get whatever they want. We want this to be something that benefits the community,” she said. “If we’re going to sell this to the community, they need to understand that we’re really going to do as much as possible to put back into the community what has been taken out.” 

Krakora, the public defender, spoke about cannabis possession arrests, and what he’s observed over the years. 

“One thing we have historically seen is the disproportionate prosecution,” Krakora said, of “people of color living in urban centers.” 

Krakora said that while some charges might not translate to jail time, they do translate into a record and all of the consequences, from barriers to housing and education, that come with the conviction. 

Yonta, a criminal defense attorney and president of the New Jersey Bar Association, said that the group “would be happy to work” with lawmakers on the “details of expungement” of qualifying cannabis offenses. 

Expungements, Yonta said, are “so tedious and time-consuming to handle that I can’t imagine how a regular citizen of the state of New Jersey would do it themselves without hiring an attorney. They are so difficult.” 

Yonta added current proposed caps on expungements mean that even residents with lower-level offenses can’t get records expunged. 

“There is this idea that there’s this clean slate, but it’s still hard to jump through those hoops in order to get that clean slate,” Yonta said. 

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