New Jersey legislators will hold hearings Monday to debate a package of bills that would legalize recreational marijuana in the Garden State, expand the existing medical marijuana program, and potentially blaze a new trail for how cannabis is legally grown, sold, and distributed in the United States.
Both the state Senate and Assembly budget committees are scheduled to vote on the "New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act" and the "New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act."
The legalization act provides a way to have previous arrests and convictions for minor cannabis offenses to be expunged from criminal records. It will also create up to 218 licenses for new cannabis dispensaries, allow for "retail marijuana consumption areas" for people to use cannabis at those dispensaries, and give municipalities wide latitude to ban marijuana businesses within their borders with an ordinance.
The updated bills under consideration also replace the word marijuana with the more scientific term cannabis.
The adult-use legalization act, formally known as Senate Bill 2703, would tax and control the drug like alcohol. It is sponsored by New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union).
The updated medical cannabis act would greatly expand the number of qualifying serious ailments for patients who want to use the drug to treat their health conditions. It would also create a state-sanctioned clinical research program, similar to Pennsylvania's, that would pair cannabis growers with academic research institutions that could include pharmaceutical companies. It is sponsored by Scutari, State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex), and State Sen. Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth).
Several proposed amendments to the bills could radically reshape cannabis sales and distribution. One provision would create a number of "microbusinesses," essentially a network of small-scale growers and smaller retail dealers that would operate like a decentralized Amazon.com of weed. The small-scale growers would be limited to 1,000 plants. Small-scale dealers would be capped at distributing 1,000 pounds a month. The bill would permit home delivery to customers and only allow New Jersey residents to become microbusiness owners.
Whether the bills will pass this year remains uncertain. Activists and supporters said the bills are more likely to be adopted in early 2019.
The legalization bill sets taxes at a low rate at the beginning so the recreational program can compete with the underground market. The original bill called for an excise tax to start at 12 percent, rising to 15 percent in year two, 20 percent in year three, and topping out at 25 percent in year four. Sweeney has said he prefers a maximum of a 12 percent tax. No state taxes would be levied on medical cannabis.
A new Cannabis Regulatory Commission would oversee an Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans, and Women Cannabis Business Development. That office would work to ensure that 30 percent of the new marijuana businesses are controlled by diverse groups that traditionally have been shut out of the industry or that have borne the brunt of oppressive cannabis laws.
The legalization act would limit cannabis advertising and sponsorship. Marijuana growers and retailers would be forbidden to advertise products between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Businesses would also be prevented from sponsoring events unless less than 20 percent of the audience is under the age of 21.