The Effort to Legalize Marijuana in New Jersey Has Officially Begun

Will lawmakers agree on a strategy for marijuana in New Jersey?
The Effort to Legalize Marijuana in New Jersey Has Officially Begun

On Monday, the New Jersey legislature held its first hearing on cannabis since Governor Phil Murphy, who supports legalization, replaced the stridently anti-cannabis Chris Christie. It’s not that lawmakers aren’t working on bills to legalize marijuana in New Jersey. They are. But they have, so far, failed to bring any proposals to a vote. A bi-partisan consensus, it seems, has been hard to come by. And progress has stalled in large part thanks to civil society groups who’ve become increasingly vocal in their opposition to legalization. Nevertheless, Monday’s hearing represents an official start to the effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

The Effort To Legalize Marijuana In New Jersey Has Officially Begun

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (Dem.) won the governorship on a platform that centered progressive cannabis law reform. So when he assumed office on January 16, many believed legal unconditional cannabis use in New Jersey was a sure thing.

In his first week in office, Murphy signed an executive order to improve access to medical marijuana. The move signaled that Murphy was serious about overhauling the state’s laws concerning cannabis.

A month into Gov. Murphy’s term, however, legislative pushback against legalization and other significant reforms began to steer the state toward a compromise position. In mid-February, state senators began calling for decriminalization over legalization.

“This whole legalization stuff needs to slow down. I think folks need to listen to Sen. [Robert] Singer and myself, and people in the community,” said Sen Ronald Rice, a main sponsor of the compromise decriminalization bill.

The legislature’s prevarications gave anti-legalization advocates a chance to amplify their message on the local level. And before lawmakers under Gov. Murphy’s administration could even propose a vote on a bill, some New Jersey townships had already begun banning cannabis businesses.

It was amidst this atmosphere of sharp divides over legalization that Monday’s hearing took place. Before a public audience of more than 100 people, and convening more than a dozen experts, lawmakers officially began discussing the future of marijuana in New Jersey.

New Jersey Lawmakers “Starting With A Blank Slate”

Joe Danielsen (Dem.) called Monday’s hearing citing legalization as an issue “of great concern to the public”.

Chairman of the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee, Danielsen said the committee would “start with a blank slate”.

With positions on cannabis legalization already so entrenched, it might be difficult to start over. But Monday’s hearing brought in experts on legalization from Colorado and Massachusetts, heard arguments for and against legalization, and took comments from the public.

At the hearing, topics ranged from social justice issues, legalization’s impact on children, the problems of the illicit marijuana market, and the future of the state’s restrictive medical cannabis program.

Sharp differences of opinion emerged, especially around the issues of tax revenue and industry regulation. Still, most of the speakers at Monday’s hearing expressed support for Gov. Murphy’s plan.

Final Hit: Legalizing Marijuana in New Jersey

No plans or promises for concrete action came out of Monday’s hearing. It’s the first of four such hearings Danielsen has scheduled throughout the state through May, kicking off a months-long study of the question of marijuana in New Jersey.

Whether and how the hearings will alter the proposals already in the works remains to be seen. But what counts is that the effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey has officially begun.

The next hearing of the Assembly oversight committee will be on April 21 at Rowan University, followed by a third at Bergen Community College on May 12.

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