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Talks heat up as NJ lawmakers push toward marijuana legislation

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Lawmakers are reviving their efforts to fast-track marijuana legalization, now that the state has a new fiscal 2019 budget.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, in a press conference following the July 1 Senate budget vote, said he wanted to have adult-use cannabis legalized by the end of the summer. That would entail committees, hearings and voting sessions.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, who’s been a key voice on legalizing adult-use cannabis, told NJBIZ on July 17 that he’d like “to get a draft together at least by next week.”

Lawmakers and public officials are also hoping to have a regulatory framework for the marijuana industry in motion by the start of 2019; the plan would likely be regulated by a newly created Division of Marijuana Enforcement.

This all requires lawmakers and public officials to continue meetings with stakeholders, whom Scutari referred to as “a lot of people with a lot of different ideas.”

Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2019 budget initially had in $60 million in tax revenue from sales of adult-use cannabis, but because lawmakers didn’t reach a deal on legal weed, it was stripped out of the budget.

That left just $20 million from the expansion of the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

“We can regulate and we can earn tax dollars in this industry if we do it right,” Murphy said July 16.

Lawmakers are backing off from an omnibus measure, Senate Bill 2703, which would have combined medical and recreational marijuana. Budget talks ultimately overshadowed the June proposal, stalling the bill.

Now they are decoupling the measure while still aiming to have recreational marijuana legalized by the end of the summer.

Scutari handles recreational, but Sen. Joe Vitale, D-19th District, said he’s dealing with the medicinal cannabis side.

“What’s important is that we pass the medical bill as it’s written [and] expand opportunities for others to get into business and production,” Vitale said. “They don’t necessarily have to be a one-stop-shop. They can just be in the production business or the grow business … but we need to increase the supply.”

The Murphy administration unveiled plans July 17 to accept applications for six new medical marijuana dispensaries, formally called alternative treatment centers.

“Due to the steps that [Health Commissioner Shereef] Elnahal and I have taken since January, we have seen the addition of 10,000 new patients,” Murphy said. “Accordingly, we have to expand the number of businesses who are growing product and serving patients.”

The health department, which regulates medical marijuana, has added a handful of categories under which a patient would be eligible: anxiety, migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorder and chronic visceral pain.

Of the 10,000 patients who signed up for the program since Jan. 6, 300 fell under one of those categories, according to health department data.

In total, the medicinal marijuana program encompasses about 25,000 patients, 1,000 caregivers and 700 physicians.

“They’ve changed who’s eligible, which is excellent,” Scutari told NJBIZ. “So people can get it more easily. But as a result of that you have a lot more people signing up.”

Vitale said the medical marijuana bill needs to expand the list of who’s eligible to prescribe medicinal cannabis, with authority likely extending to physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

His measure also calls for expanding who counts as a caregiver, so that it would include family members of a patient.

Meantime, Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-17th District, and Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-20th District, have recently each unveiled more ambitious proposals to the state’s legal marijuana framework.

Under Holley’s proposals, based off Scutari’s S2703, there would not be a cap on the number of medical and recreational dispensaries in the state. S2703 called for 98 medical dispensaries and 120 adult-use shops.

The measure would fast-track the process of clearing criminal records over marijuana convictions and remove penalties for dispensing, distributing, possessing or manufacturing the drug.

In the place of criminal penalties would be civil fines for those over 21, and drug-free education for anyone underage.

The amendment calls for “social equity zones,” where a certain number of retail licenses would go to “people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.”

Scutari’s measure has such an element, called “impact zones,” which S2703 describes as “geographical areas where a combination of social and economic factors reduce the likelihood that persons from that area would, without support, benefit from a marijuana business, employment and other related opportunities.” His proposal calls for a set number of retail licenses to go toward applicants from these impact zones.

Holley’s measure calls for a ban on vertical integration, where a business can grow, manufacture, package, process and sell marijuana. The ban means a business would only be able to do one of those things.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to it, these are just amendments,” Holley said.

The funds from the taxation of recreational marijuana, according to Holley’s measure, would see 20 percent go toward the New Jersey Public Education Trust Fund, 15 percent to youth drug prevention and education, 15 percent to mental health and substance abuse treatment and 15 percent toward addressing homelessness.

The rest would go into the Justice Reinvestment Community Grants Fund to help communities that have disproportionately been affected by high marijuana arrest rates.

“This is an ongoing piece of legislation that we continue to need to flesh out and need to continue to have these conversations,” Holley said.

Meanwhile, Danielsen said medicinal and recreational marijuana need to be addressed separately.

If necessary, he added, the legalization of recreational marijuana should be delayed at least until the state fully sets up a market for medical cannabis.

“With all the environments that have both medical and non-medical marijuana markets, the medical market almost implodes on itself because they make it so expensive, inconvenient and convoluted that people say ‘to hell with it, I’m going to non-medical purchases,’” Danielsen said.

Danielsen’s amendments to Assembly Bill 10, which handles medicinal marijuana in the lower house of the Legislature, would incentivize research at universities, hospitals and medical research entities. They would also set aside 15 percent of licenses for women, minorities and veterans, and prioritize New Jersey residents.

Danielsen’s measures call for “micro-licenses,” which means the applicant has to live in or near the community in which they are seeking to set up a marijuana business, as do its employees.

“It’s designed not to be attractive to the big multinational companies,” Danielsen said, adding those types of businesses tend to have state’s marijuana industries slanted in their favor.

“You’re going to spend $100,000 just putting the paperwork together,” he added. “If you don’t have a dedicated team of consultants putting the application together, you’re going to lose.”

He also lambasted the $20,000 application fee required to be considered for one of the six new dispensaries as “a tool of a racist system.”

Holley’s push for marijuana records expungement borrows from efforts Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, unveiled in June.

“How do we develop fair, deliberate expungement procedures that will help affected residents through the process, and address financial and other concerns that may arise as a result of a change in law?” Quijano asked following a recent hearing on expungements.

Those who’ve been convicted of a marijuana crime, social justice advocates argue, have difficulty seeking housing, employment or education opportunities, and are barred from federal student aid.

“You can’t incarcerate somebody on something they did on a Friday and allow the person who does the same thing on Monday to do it legally,” Murphy said.

A complicating factor, according to Shane Derris, chief of staff for Quijano, is marijuana convictions stem back to the 1970s when the Drug Enforcement Agency first criminalized weed.

Decades of criminal records have been kept on paper and may have been lost, damaged, mishandled or not properly transferred onto digital records.

Quijano’s idea is that a person would immediately be eligible to apply for records expungement, but the process could take months or even years.  

“When you talk about expunging a record, under New Jersey’s expungement program, you can’t expunge a single charge from a docket, from a file; you’d have to deal with, kind of, that whole file,” Derris said.

“If you got arrested for possession of what we are now going to allow, but you also got charged with possession of paraphernalia, or possession of marijuana in a vehicle … if you remove possession but you leave those other crimes, you’re not really doing the social justice, because those barriers are still going to be there when someone runs that background check,” he continued.

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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