Update: The marijuana legalization bill passed out of committee today. It is heading to the full legislature for a vote.
With any luck, the Garden State will getting a whole lot greener in 2019. This week, New Jersey lawmakers are set to discuss a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana use as early as January. At a public hearing on Monday, November 26th, the State assembly and senate committees will debate the legislation, which would legalize the possession of one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years or older, and hear from constituents before taking a legislative vote. If the bill passes, it will move on to a full vote by the State assembly and senate, and could be on Governor Phil Murphy’s desk in time for the New Year.
According to NewJersey.com, the Democrat-led state legislature has privately debated the measure — known as the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act” — for years, but had no hope of seeing it signed into law by former Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who was staunchly against legalization during his eight years in office. Murphy, on the other hand, is a Democrat who campaigned on marijuana legalization, and upon winning the governorship in November 2017, boldly declared he would do just that during his first 100 days in office.
Ironing out the bill’s finer points has taken longer than Murphy had in mind, and he’s since adjusted his goal to legalize cannabis by the end of this year. According to Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, the Governor’s Office and the State Legislature are “98 percent” in agreement over the terms laid out in the latest version of the bill, which includes permitting cannabis delivery services, allowing licensed dispensaries to open public “consumption areas,” and the framework for an “expedited expungement” process for people with prior marijuana arrests and convictions.
However, there are two big sticking points over which Murphy and the legislature have long been at odds: the tax rate for what would be a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the degree of regulatory power that should be bestowed upon a new commission.
The bill calls for a 12 percent tax on retail cannabis sales, which would be the second lowest tax rate for states with legal marijuana (Michigan’s tax rate is 10 percent), plus an extra 2 percent in local taxes for towns which host marijuana businesses. That’s significantly lower than the 25 percent tax rate on marijuana in Murphy’s initial 2018-2019 budget, and according to NJ.com, he has “privately … said 12 percent is too low.” Sweeney, meanwhile, has said he opposes a tax rate higher than 12 percent, arguing it would keep the black market afloat.
The other issue that could give Murphy pause is the bill’s call for the establishment of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, a five-member panel which would oversee everything from marijuana sales to licenses to violations and regulations. According to Politico, Murphy is reportedly unhappy that the structure limits the power of the executive branch, and is said to favor either a part-time commission or one where his office could exert more influence.
Sweeney, as well as the bill’s other sponsors, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senator Nicholas Scutari, both Democrats, are hopeful that with enough support within the senate and assembly, the bill will win Murphy’s approval as well. Alternatively, the State legislature could allow Murphy to rewrite portions of the bill under a conditional veto.
“We’ve talked about this for too long, and we’re ready to start the process,” Sweeney said.