A bill to legalize adult cannabis use and establish a regulated retail industry in New Jersey has made it out of committee after state lawmakers in both the Assembly and the Senate voted yesterday to advance the measure. The vote came at the end of a contentious, day-long public hearing on the bill that attracted more than 200 people. And it represents the first official legislative action on adult-use cannabis legalization since Governor Phil Murphy took office in January.
Legal Cannabis Bill Clears Committee, But Still Has to Clear a Few Hurdles
New Jersey state bill S2703, the “Marijuana Legalization Act,” would establish broad limits for consumers and the retail industry and prioritize criminal legal reforms for those most impacted by prohibition and criminalization. Despite several moments of sharp debate during yesterday’s hearing, lawmakers in both chambers approved the bill. The 13-member Senate budget committee tallied seven votes in favor with four opposed and two abstentions. The bill faired slightly better in the Assembly, with the 10-member budget panel voting 7-2 in favor with one abstaining.
The next stop for S2703 is a full floor vote in both the Senate and the Assembly. And if it passes, it will head to the desk of Gov. Murphy for signing. Murphy, who voters elected on a progressive campaign that included a massive medical cannabis program expansion and the promise of adult-use legalization, has so far wavered on his support for this particular bill. And as legal marijuana in New Jersey gets closer to becoming reality, many prominent lawmakers and advocates are still saying the language of the bill needs tweaking. Further revisions could take the approval process well into 2019—there’s only one legislative session left this year, on December 17.
Legalization Supporters Praise Progress But Admit Bill is Still a Work in Progress
After learning of the S2703’s approvals in committee, Gov. Murphy told reporters that “it’s too early to tell” whether he would sign or veto the legislation. In fact, Murphy’s office has so far declined to comment on the bill’s specifics. But previous comments suggest that a principal concern for Murphy is the tax rate. At times, Gov. Murphy has called for a 25 percent tax on cannabis, which would be among the highest in the country. Currently, however, the bill imposes a 12 percent base tax rate, comparable to states like California and Oregon. The New Jersey legislature could still make changes to the bill, including revisions to its proposed tax rates.
For advocates of legalization, on the other hand, the language of the bill remains insufficiently strong on its social justice and criminal legal elements. As it currently stands, S2703 would establish a framework for expediting criminal records expungements for those arrested and convicted of minor cannabis offenses. It would also adopt preferential policies for minority participation in the regulated industry. But advocates, like ACLU senior policy advisor Dianna Houenou, say those elements of the bill could be stronger. As a result, key Democrat lawmakers who support legalization as a way to redress the racially disparate harms of criminal enforcement are already calling for amendments to strengthen those aspects of the bill.
In fact, arguments over the social justice-oriented components of the Marijuana Legalization Act largely boil down to whether the proposals will be effective or not. For some skeptics, like former cop and long-time legalization opponent Sen. Ron Rice, the bill’s justice-oriented objectives are merely a cover for its cruder financial interests. “It’s about money for white investors,” Rice said at yesterday’s hearing.
New Jersey Continues on the Path to Legalization
Nevertheless, New Jersey is one significant step closer to establishing a legal framework for adult-use cannabis in the state. But the bill is far from its final version. Lawmakers still have time to introduce major changes, including those to the tax rate and expungement policies. Despite criticisms of the draft legislation, the momentum seems to be behind approving the bill. How long that process will take, however, depends on how quickly lawmakers move to amend the bill.