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  • Writer's pictureJamie

NY, NJ, PA... Who will be 1st?

It has been 13 months since Gov. Phil Murphy was inaugurated and pledged to legalize marijuana in New Jersey within the first 100 days of him being in office. Now, we are in the month of February and marijuana has still not been legalized. During the past year, New Jersey officials have agonized over details to legalize marijuana. In the first 100 days, the deadline quickly changed to summer, then fall, all passing those promised dates. As more northeast states are considering legalizing marijuana, we will go over the latest steps and setbacks on the road toward marijuana legalization.

After compromising on legislation over minimum wage being at $15 per hour, Gov. Phil Murphy's administration is on a similar page with Stephen Sweeney, NJ Senate President. This new collaboration has entrepreneurs and advocates for cannabis hopeful that change is on the way before the spring. "We have the governor, the senate president and the assembly speaker in 100 percent agreement that NJ should end cannabis prohibition and establish an industry. And they’re in 95 percent agreement on how to do it," said New Jersey Cannabusiness Association President Scott Rudder, a former assemblyman. "I feel very confident that we're going to get this done in the coming weeks." Murphy's administration isn’t in agreement with Sweeney regarding the proposed tax rate for marijuana and industry control. Murphy's 2018-19 budget calls for a 25 percent tax rate on marijuana purchased at retail dispensaries. The most recent version of the bill has a 12 percent tax rate, the lowest in the country for legalized marijuana. The most significant concern is how the five proposed members of Cannabis Regulatory Commission is made up. As it was written, the governor would appoint three commissioners, and the Senate President and Assembly Speaker will also each appoint one. The commissioners would be paid full-time salaries of $125,000 to $161,000. Murphy's office wants the administration to have more control, with the New Jersey legal marijuana regulations and licenses handled in-house, likely as an arm of the Attorney General's Office. Previous versions of the marijuana legalization bill called for similar provisions but not quite. Once Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin reach an agreement, they'll then need to convince the rest of legislation to agree. Last year, a Rutgers University-Eagleton poll reported that 58 percent of New Jersey residents are in favor of marijuana legalization, while it is not clear whether the bill will have the votes to pass in the Senate or Assembly.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo restated his plans to legalize marijuana within the first 100 days of his new term, before April 10; a marijuana legalization bill has not yet been introduced. The debate raging in New Jersey is also starting to heat up in the NY state. Recently, representatives from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the most prominent marijuana legalization opponents in the country held a press conference calling for Cuomo to "slow this train down.” It seems that if New Jersey is on the road toward legalizing marijuana, New York is still on the entrance ramp. Which brings us to two other states: Pennsylvania and Connecticut. They are important in similar ways for the big picture of marijuana legalization.

Jake Wheatley (D), a Pennsylvania representative, introduced a bill that would legalize the sale and adult use of marijuana, calling for a 35 to 37 percent tax rate which includes the standard 6 percent sales tax. The state estimates its passage could generate over $580 million in tax revenue. In December, Gov. Tom Wolf (D), tweeted that it was "time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana." Pennsylvania’s main issue is political; Republicans have a majority in both chambers of the PA state Legislature. While legalizing marijuana has become a more bipartisan issue in some states, it's still a cause mostly championed by Democrats.” (NY and PA) are going through the same growing pains we did,” Rudder (NJ) said. “We completed our listening tour years ago, and New York still has to catch up." In Connecticut, a huge band of Democrats in the House introduced a legalization bill for marijuana, that would permit its existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling it recreationally. The proposed legislation does not include an exact tax rate.

In contrast to Pennsylvania, Democrats in Connecticut control both the Governor's Office and both legislative chambers. Forty Democrats signed onto the legal marijuana bill, which represents over 26 percent of the entire House. Most legislators in New Jersey have stated the main reason for legalization is to stop the continued arrest of African Americans for marijuana possession at a rate three times higher than white people, regardless of similar usage rates. There are other considerations. “It’s about attracting businesses to set up shop here in New Jersey, instead of another location, and it’s an opportunity to boost tourism and bring people here that will invest in New Jersey’s small businesses,” Rudder said. "We’re still in a position to be the first in the region – but more importantly, we’re looking forward to having smart, comprehensive legislation. “Certainly, there’s an advantage to being first in the region, but what’s more important to us is to make sure we do this right,” he said. In other states with adult use marijuana, the first state to legalize often becomes a destination for marijuana users only a few hours’ drive away. In addition to its own 9 million residents, New Jersey is surrounded by millions more in neighboring NY and PA who -- cannabis entrepreneurs and state officials hope -- would come to New Jersey for the chance to buy legal marijuana. However, if Pennsylvania beats New Jersey to the punch, that consumer traffic halts. If Connecticut legalizes before New Jersey, millions of New Yorkers -- many of whom live closer to New Jersey – go there instead.

If William Barr is confirmed as the permanent United States Attorney General, cannabis regulators will breathe easier. During his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr stated he would "not go after companies that have relied on the Cole memorandum." That memo, written during the Obama administration, directed federal prosecutors not to intervene with marijuana programs in states that had legalized the drug. "To the extent that people are complying with the state laws in distribution and production and so forth, we’re not going to go after that," Barr said. That's a significant change from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of cannabis who recalled the Cole memorandum last year.

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