Marijuana Legalization Bill Delays | Featured News in New Jersey
The day began in Trenton with great optimism for the supporters of legalizing marijuana.
After five years of turmoil, the movement to legalize recreational marijuana was supposed to be within reach. As voters overwhelmingly backed a November 3 ballot referendum, Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature ostensibly crafted last-minute amendments meant to appease a crowd of social justice advocates, who derailed a vote on a bill needed to define a new marijuana industry last Thursday. Committees from both legislative chambers were expected to approve the changes, and the legislation would be enacted on Monday.
But like many times before, the day at the State House would end without consensus. Instead, New Jersey’s quest to shut down marijuana legalization has lengthened a little longer, and the jury is out on which direction it is headed.
Who does not agree?
“The good news is that progress has been made today,” said William Caruso, a senior former Democratic aide, a longtime legalization advocate who heads the cannabis law practice at Archer Public Affairs. “The bad news is that the Governor, the Senate and the Assembly still cannot reach an agreement. And it seems that this bill has once again derailed. “
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Paul Sarlo, put it this way: “We have two bills that are absolutely not alike. They will have to be negotiated. He said the Senate amendments were completed around 5:30 p.m., but he did not disclose in detail the nature of the changes. The committee then adopted its version. And then they canceled their floor session which was scheduled for Monday.
“We are getting closer to the long-awaited need to end cannabis prohibition,” said MP Annette Quijano (D-Union), one of the bill’s sponsors. “So much time, effort and thought has gone into this bill. We are continuing the conversations because what I believe produced a stronger bill with an eye focused on social justice and fairness. “
The bill was withdrawn last Thursday after a chorus of complaints protested that none of the planned tax revenue had been spent on social justice programs.
After nearly three hours of contentious testimony, the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee adopted an amended bill at around 2 p.m. The Senate committee began its hearing around 4 p.m., two hours later than scheduled, as members and staff furiously edited the changes to the legislation.
Where legislative chambers disagree
Here are the latest amendments on which the Senate and the Assembly differ:
- The most significant change has been the addition of a sliding scale “social justice excise tax” on producers, in addition to state and local sales taxes. Proceeds from the new excise tax – the amount will depend on the market price – would go to “impact areas” of minority communities that have been hardest hit by arrests and unequal sentences on drug charges. It would fund programs such as legal aid, drug rehabilitation, reintegration of ex-prisoners and mentoring. However, the Senate bill would also devote 70% of sales tax revenue to impact areas.
- Another Assembly amendment increases the initial number of licensed producers from 28 to 37, in order to ensure that there will be enough product to sell. Sarlo said the Senate version would remove the cap on producer licenses altogether.
- The Senate also disagreed over workplace safety rules. The Assembly version calls for the use of certified experts to make decisions and take action regarding employees suspected of being “elevated”. The Senate, on the other hand, wants to ensure that employers have more discretion and can continue to do random drug tests.
Hours of public testimony before the Assembly’s appropriations committee, however, had one social justice advocate after another expressing deep dissatisfaction with the latest version of the bill. To begin with, they complained that the amendments had not even been made available to the public for consideration and that the bill was being forced into law without proper consideration.
“We have a bill that’s over 200 pages long, and now 166 pages of amendments that we haven’t had time to read,” said Ron Hein, co-chair of the Faith Action NJ Criminal Justice Working Group. , which is part of the Unitarian Church. at Cherry Hill.
A summary of the amendments presented by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the sponsor of the bill, did not appease them. And a weird moment during Scutari’s own presentation revealed how quickly the content of his bill was changing: he couldn’t remember if the current bill allowed possession of 1 ounce of marijuana or 2 ounces.
“We have to finish this by the end of the year”, said Scutari during the hearing of the Assembly. “If we don’t, we’re going to run into a myriad of other problems.”
More than two-thirds of New Jersey voters have passed a referendum to amend the state’s Constitution to allow for legalization. Nonetheless, enabling legislation is needed to establish rules and regulations for the new system before legal sales can begin.
During the Assembly committee hearing, activists offered a long list of what they said were the glaring shortcomings of the bill, including vague language on who would be entitled to the revenue from the excise tax, that social justice revenues are not guaranteed, why for people to grow their own weed, funds for police training should not be included and the state should pay the fees erasure.
Assembly member John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the chairman of the committee, has repeatedly pleaded for patience, arguing in various ways that perfect defense is the enemy of good. “It’s not perfect, but I think it’s really good,” he said. “As we bring this to life, that doesn’t mean it’s the final version forever and ever… The legislative process is not perfect. “
“We are not looking for perfection; we are looking for justice, ”replied Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “Do you want to vote on a bill whose language you haven’t seen? “
Sarah Fajardo, policy director at ACLU-NJ, echoed Ortiz’s sentiments. “The legislature can do more to meet its obligations to communities of color by making the social justice excise tax concrete, rather than optional,” said Fajardo. “We know from the words of lawmakers that racial justice is a high priority in legalization, but we must see it as a guideline in the policies they present.”
After nearly three hours, members passed the amended bill, 8-4, within minutes.
“It has come a long way”
“It has come a long way in terms of adding the social equity tax,” said Reverend Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice, one of the bill’s most vocal opponents last week. .
Nonetheless, he was concerned about the language surrounding the allocation of tax revenue, noting the use of the word “may”, which he said should be replaced with “shall”.
“The way it’s designed is at best a possibility, not a guarantee,” Boyer said.
Burzichelli responded by saying that any shortfall in funds from the excise tax would be made up from the general state fund.
“The legislature has turned this relatively simple act of legalizing personal marijuana into an overly complicated scheme that is ripe for abuse,” said Sen. Michael Testa, an Atlantic County Republican. “The legislature has once again fallen into the trap of trying to do too much at once, and it never ends well. “
Reduce criminal and civil penalties
In addition to the legalization bill, lawmakers are still crafting a separate bill that would eliminate criminal and civil penalties for up to 6 ounces of marijuana. The House withdrew this bill after adding an amendment that would also reduce the penalties for possession of psilocybin mushrooms.
The said supply of magic mushrooms is also a matter of negotiation between the two houses.
Deputy Majority Leader Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) called the absence of a decriminalization bill “disappointing and shameful”.
She called for this bill to be passed and signed before the legalization bill is put to a vote.
“We need to send a clear message: we are for fairness, we are for honesty, we are for courage,” she said.
As for Scutari, the key sponsor, he took the day in a good mood.
“I’m a little frustrated, but we keep moving the ball,” he said with a chuckle. “We’re going to get there. It might be a few days; it might take a few weeks.… I thought we were going to be done today.