Ricardo Rivera was alone, surrounded by a crush of reporters and lobbyists, when he watched the unveiling Monday of a bill that would fully legalize marijuana in New Jersey.
Rivera’s daughter, Tuffy, 10, is a licensed medical marijuana patient who uses cannabis for seizures under the state’s seven-year-old program. But Tuffy’s medicine costs nearly $600 a month, at about $300 an ounce, and Rivera was hopeful the bill would allow people to cultivate their own plants and save money.
He left disappointed and determined to fight for a better bill.
“We were the first state in the country to not allow home growing when we passed the medical marijuana bill. Now, we’re doing it all over again, and that’s pretty upsetting,” the Oaklyn resident said in an interview last week.
The measure introduced by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who had sponsored the 2010 medical marijuana bill, would allow only licensed dispensaries to sell pot for medical or recreational use. Residents would not be permitted to plant marijuana for their own use.
Scutari (D., Union), a municipal prosecutor, led a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Colorado this past fall to see legalization firsthand and for many months had promised a well-researched bill.
Colorado allows residents to grow six plants, but Scutari said there are concerns that some of the buds are being sold on the illegal market.
At the news conference in the statehouse in Trenton, Scutari said he omitted home growing because it would make the job of regulators more difficult. He said he would like to give the new industry a chance to get started.
But seven of the eight states that have full legalization include provisions to allow people to plant their own marijuana. (Washington State is the exception.)
Two weeks ago, the Vermont legislature passed a law similar to the one in Washington D.C. that allows only home growing – no retail sales -- said Chris Goldstein, a longtime marijuana advocate and a Philly.com columnist.
The New Jersey bill “is completely bizarre. It’s not what other states have done,” he said.
Goldstein said the bill is also “out of touch with the cannabis community in New Jersey and is completely driven by the cannabis industry.” He noted that Scutari sponsored a bill in 2014 to legalize marijuana that included home cultivation – three plants per household. The bill died in committee.
If this new bill is passed, New Jersey also would be the second state to legalize marijuana without first decriminalizing it, Goldstein said.
Decriminalization – replacing criminal charges with small civil fines – could more quickly end the injustice associated with arresting about 24,000 people a year in New Jersey on marijuana charges, he said. Implementing a legalization program could take another year or two, he said.
“Their proposal literally says that marijuana arrests will continue until retail regulations are in place,” Goldstein said.
Scutari said he is open to changing the bill as it goes through debate in the Legislature. “It’s not perfect,” he said.
But Scutari does not support decriminalization because he said it allows the illegal market to thrive.
Scutari also said he does not expect to get the bill signed into law until Gov. Christie is out of office in January. Christie, a Republican and a staunch opponent of legalization, views marijuana as a gateway drug and has vowed a veto. Scutari said no reliable studies consider marijuana a gateway drug.
Scutari said that he wants to get the wrinkles out of the bill while waiting for Christie's exit.
The New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, whose representatives attended the news conference, announced support for the bill, saying it will “open the door to access to individuals 21 and over.” The newly formed marijuana-business group also said the bill will help medical marijuana patients, allowing them to “simply walk into a store to purchase their medication much the same way a consumer can go into their local pharmacy to purchase Advil.”
Marijuana patients currently complain of regulations that are too strict and cumbersome. Currently, 11,700 New Jersey residents are registered in the state's medical cannabis program. They are served by five dispensaries.
The bill would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of cannabis, or 16 ounces of infused solid products, such as edibles, or 72 ounces in liquid form or seven grams of concentrate. Taxes would start at 7 percent and rise to 25 percent over the next five years.
Peter Rosenfeld, a marijuana patient from Collingswood who suffers from severe cervical spinal degradation, said that he, too, is disappointed by the bill.
Rosenfeld said that the dispensaries sometimes run out of the high-CBD strain that many pediatric patients use for seizures and that his dispensary has been out of the strain he needs to alleviate his pain for months. "They don't expect to have it again until this summer," he said.
If patients could grow their own plants, this problem would be solved, he said.
Also, Rosenfeld said he fears the recreational program may worsen the shortage of certain strains. “In states that have implemented legal recreational marijuana, there seems to have been some de-emphasis on the medical marijuana program, probably because many of the dispensaries are also doing recreational and the money is in the recreational program,” he said.
Mary Garrison-Pangburn, a medical marijuana patient from Moorestown who has muscular and skeletal spasticity, also has misgivings about the bill. “I don’t want the recreational program to ruin it for us,” she said. “I need marijuana for my pain and I don’t want to go back on heavy narcotics.”
Rivera, whose daughter has been a cannabis patient for four years, said he sees the new bill as just one more setback he must deal with to get her the medicine she needs. He said that he will reach out to other state legislators who introduced bills over the last two years that called for legalizing marijuana and also allowing home growing.
Those bills died in committee before coming to the floor for a vote, but they could be reintroduced.