NJ Recreational Update
On Monday, after hours of delays, committees from both houses in state Legislature have advanced bills to legalize recreational cannabis in addition to clearing the records of those with marijuana-related convictions. This sets up possible floor votes for next week. Still, Legislative staff were “fine tuning” almost 20 critical changes to the keynote of the legislative package, NJ S2703 (18R), early on Monday evening, Assembly Appropriations Chairman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) said. The standstill evoked the Senate Judiciary Committee to rescind public ability to comment on the bill, riling advocates, opponents and Republican members of the committee. The Appropriations Committee, concurrently, cut each speaker’s testimony to three minutes and only to the fiscal impact and new amendments. That decision, along with the delay, resulted in reducing the number of speakers to around a half dozen. What came after was a pair of disharmonious hearings in which the outcome was irrefutable. Democrats on both committees were able to advance the bills over Republican opposition and the reservations of some of the more moderate members of their group. Convincing some moderates to support a final vote will be a no easy task for Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), each of whom has said they’d like to see a vote on the entire bill package on March 25.
Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin, all of whom are for legalization, are individually having conversations with lawmakers and advocates in advance of next week’s planned vote. The recreational use bill still does not have the support needed in either house to pass. The governor has made “dozens” of calls in rallying support efforts, a senior administration official said. In statements in advance of and after Monday’s hearings, Sweeney and Coughlin both stated they were also moving to gain support of the measure. “This bill has extensive hearings — hours of hearings — we just happen to be in the home stretch,” Burzichelli said during the appropriations hearing. “Believe me, this vote will be a very interesting vote.”
Sens. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) and Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), both on the Judiciary proceedings, said they still have vital questions and concerns about the recreational use legislation. Smith told the committee this will be one of his “toughest votes.” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) told the Appropriations Committee he still had concerns, while Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex) sat out from voting to advance the measure. After the Senate committee adjourned, a legislative staff member had a conversation with Pou to explain the complexities of new expungement provisions that would enable low-level marijuana distributors to have felonies wiped from their records. The recent changes to the expungement provisions — which allows those who have had felony convictions for distributing up to five pounds of cannabis to clear their records — caused a commotion from Republicans on the Senate committee, many of whom were already against legalization.
Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) equated the legislation to a “deal with the devil,” claiming it marked New Jersey’s decent into a violent, pornographic nightmare worthy of a Bosch painting. Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) said the expungement provisions would function as a reward for bad behavior, slapping a nickname on the bill that could’ve been coined by Seinfeld character George Costanza. “I think you should rename this bill the Drug Pusher, the Drug Pusher’s Friend Act,” Cardinale said. “Some of the worst people in our society are going to get a clean record. To be willing to break our laws once, twice, many times, we’re still going to give them a clean record.” Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill’s lead sponsor and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, conceded that five pounds “sounds like a lot — and you’re probably right. In some circumstances, it’s an extraordinary amount.” But, he said, the language reflects an existing statute that prosecutes quantities from one ounce to five pounds as a third-degree distribution charge, making it difficult to set a moderate threshold. The debate’s tenor got even more rigid in the later part of the evening.
After Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) and Cardinale spoke of concerns about the possible ramifications of legalization on impaired driving and public safety, Scutari demanded to know why New Jersey lets bars have parking lots — despite drinking and driving being illegal. “It’s just nuts that we’re not realizing that people are not going to stop using marijuana,” Scutari said. Other amendments matched the agreement reached by Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin earlier this month. The legislation sets a $42 per ounce tax on cannabis cultivators, frames a new structure of a regulatory body to govern the cannabis industry and sets up new processes relating to expungements for marijuana convictions.
In addition, the bill caps the number of grow facilities in the state at 28 in the first 18 months after legalization, downgrades marijuana to a Schedule II substance per New Jersey’s controlled dangerous substance regulations and require child-proof packaging for specific cannabis products. One fairly recent change, agreed upon this weekend, provides a path for those incarcerated or facing fines for cannabis-related charges to have those charges vacated. These later amendments made to the recreational use bill added to Monday’s hold up, which resulted in just one speaker — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who criticized the measure for unavailing to clear the records of those with convictions related to cannabis. “There should be no onus put on the individual at all — to go through any process — to get this done,” Baraka told the Assembly Appropriations Committee. “We have been told that it’s difficult, and that this can’t be done in the state of New Jersey — that there’s all kinds of convoluted reasons why this is impossible. Nobody’s explained to us why it’s impossible.”