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NJ Working to Expand MMJ

A law that would greatly expand New Jersey’s medicinal cannabis program passed the state Senate on Thursday, facing one of the last barriers before Gov. Phil Murphy sees it.

The bill passed the Senate, 33-4, at the Statehouse in Trenton. Last week, the same measure passed the state Assembly. Though, that body must have a new vote that is in accordance with a late amendment approved by the Senate that allows cannabis industry employees to unionize. The vote is set for June 10. “This will be a fast-tracked expansion of medical marijuana statewide,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari D-Union, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It’s a greater opportunity for different patients to utilize medical cannabis, and not just as a last resort but for a first resort for a variety of conditions. There will be expanded opportunities for (dispensaries) to be located closer to where people live.”

The pending legislation (A10) would roll back the requirement for New Jersey patients to see a doctor up to four times a year to just once, annually. The prerequisite for regular doctor visits has further hindered the quality of life for people with incurable or terminal illnesses. The bill also allows patients to purchase more than two ounces of flower per visit. For patients making their own oils and tinctures, the two-ounce limit may have been restrictive. The bill was titled the “Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act” in memory of the 7-year-old boy whom had cancer and endured debilitating pain the second part of the month when his supply of medical cannabis had depleted. The medical cannabis bill is 120-pages long, and thoroughly revises important aspects of the 2010 law. It should provide a boost to the rapidly growing medicinal cannabis industry in New Jersey, that has made $53.4 million in 2018 alone.

The end goal of the bill will not be met until Murphy (D), signs it. As much of a supporter of the medicinal marijuana program as he is (making its extension a main sticking point of his schedule) Murphy still had concerns with some of the terms. Murphy objected to the proposal of creating an independent commission to take control of the medicinal cannabis program, which would remove it from the state Health Department, according to NJ Advance Media. The governor agreed with the commission when a relevant bill to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey was still up for debate. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, gave up on that effort, after failing to gather enough votes, according to four sources close to the governor.

Murphy isn’t comfortable with the bill because it proposes a limit of 23 licenses to cultivate the crop, two of the sources said. Last second, the Senate also delayed a vote on another highly anticipated bill that would make the record expungement process easier for many nonviolent crimes involving marijuana. The bill comes up for vote on June 10. Scutari has said he was relieved the medical marijuana bill is close to completion, but noted that he had wished that it would also legalize cannabis for adults 21 and over. “I’m happy we got this done today. Am I disappointed, too? Sure,” Scutari said. “We will still have thousands of people arrested yearly in New Jersey for marijuana possession, and when we do legalize it, we will have to deal with the repercussions of those arrests, too." Other elements of the new bill include: Phasing out the state sales tax of 6.625 percent on cannabis sales starting on Jan. 1, 2025, Setting a goal of awarding 15 percent of licenses issued to minority owners, 15 percent to women, the disabled, and veterans, and allowing home delivery.

Though the legislation passed overwhelmingly, Republican and Democratic senators rose on the floor to explain some of their misgivings. State Sens. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, Robert Singer, R-Ocean and Shirley Turner, D-Mercer lamented that the bill would not immediately end the state sales tax on cannabis. No other medicine is taxed, they said. Turner also made mention of how expensive cannabis is for many of her constituents who can’t afford to pay out of pocket for an ounce of flower, which costs between $400-$500. “We are leaving a lot of people in pain and misery," Turner said. State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who is also a sponsor of the bill, said he wished the tax revenue wasn’t needed to pay for the program, which licenses six dispensaries serving 47,300 patients. He stated patients will save money once the bill is exercised, as they will have less doctor visits. After voting, Vitale said there is much to celebrate in the bill that will improve the quality of life for patients. “Expanding access through innovation and competition will provide patients with the life-enhancing medicine they need and require,” Vitale said. New Jersey is slowly but surely making progress in the world of legal cannabis.

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