At 10 a.m. on Monday, New Jersey Senate and Assembly committees opened a hearing to discuss and debate legalizing cannabis for adults. On the table is the “Marijuana Legalization Act,” a legislative blueprint that would not only create a multi-billion-dollar legal cannabis industry, but also expunge low-level marijuana convictions and arrest records. Today’s public hearing comes after months of closed-door negotiations over the bill. And by 4 p.m., lawmakers expect to hold a vote on the bill, which means New Jersey could take its first step toward legalization this afternoon.
The New Jersey statehouse is packed. For the past few hours, lawmakers have been intensely debating New Jersey bill S2703, the “Marijuana Legalization Act.” If lawmakers vote to pass the bill, they will have taken a major first step toward establishing a regulated adult-use cannabis industry in New Jersey. For the rest of the afternoon, lawmakers will debate the particulars of the bill as well as whether or not to approve it, hoping to bring the bill to a vote before the end the day.
Some key fault lines have already emerged between lawmakers in favor of the bill and those who do not support its passage. Perhaps most fundamentally, lawmakers are debating whether decriminalization would better-meet the social justice objectives outlined in the legalization bill. Democratic Assemblyman and former cop Ronald Rice, for example, blasted legalization as economically-motivated, not justice-oriented. Governor Murphy, who voters elected in part for his progressive stance on cannabis, maintains that legalization is a critical step toward eliminating racial disparities in the criminal legal system.
But financial matters were also front and center. One of the most contentious issues has been and continues to be the matter of taxation. The latest public draft of the bill would impose a 12 percent tax across the cannabis industry and an additional 2 percent excise tax for towns that permit cannabis businesses to operate within their jurisdictions. Another major (and highly predictable) point of contention was the issue of public safety. Lawmakers opposed to legalization have so far expressed concerns over child safety measures, drug-impaired driving, and crime. Those in favor of the draft bill responded by pointing out that alcohol, a legal and regulated substance, poses much greater risks to public safety.
State bill S2703 would establish some of the country’s most permissive adult-use cannabis regulations, at least as far as consumers go. Those 21 and over would be able to possess, use, purchase and transport up to an ounce of botanicals. But limits also allow for other forms of cannabis, including up to 7 grams of concentrates, a pound of cannabis-infused products like edibles and 72 ounces of cannabis-infused liquids. The law would also permit the cultivation of up to 6 cannabis plants for personal use.
On the retail side, the law would allow companies to offer cannabis delivery services, as are popular in many adult-use states. But New Jersey’s marijuana legalization bill would also allow retail dispensaries to create cannabis lounges. These designated consumption areas would allow customers to consume cannabis socially in public. Such spaces would, however, require approval from municipal authorities.
The bill’s text also prioritizes small-business equity. Lawmakers who support legalization want to make sure its benefits redound to those most impacted by the regime of prohibition and criminalization. In addition to expediting the expungement of criminal records, the state is setting aside 10 percent of all licenses for “micro-businesses”. Furthermore, regulators will give preference to business license applicants located in communities historically targeted by law enforcement. And in a win for labor, the bill would require licensed businesses that do not qualify as “micro” businesses to hire unionized workers. The bill even gets the little things right: it uses “cannabis” instead of “marijuana” or, as in some states, the derogatory “marihuana.”
S2703 still needs to pass a vote in front of the full New Jersey House and Senate before it can head to the desk of Gov. Murphy. And if Murphy signs the bill into law, it will still take another 6 months for retail shops to begin selling to customers—if not longer. Establishing and staffing new regulatory agencies and licensing, as we’ve seen time and again, is a messy process. But New Jersey is undeniably heading toward a future with legal cannabis. Indeed, momentum has been building for some time, thanks to recent medical program expansions, major industry investment, and widespread popular support.