Democrats unveil bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday released final language for a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana for adult use in New Jersey in advance of committee hearings scheduled for next week.

The final draft of the bill contains provisions that have been opposed by officials in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.

The legalization bill is the centerpiece of a package of legislation that would also expand the state’s medical cannabis program and offer avenues for former offenders to clear their records of certain marijuana-related charges. Final language for the criminal expungement bill, NJ S3205 (18R), has not yet been released.

As with previous drafts, the legislation that will be considered by the Assembly appropriations and Senate budget committees on Monday will hold taxes on cannabis sales to 12 percent — well below the 25 percent rate sought by the Murphy administration.

Local governments will also be able to impose an excise tax of up to 2 percent on local sales, which is less than the 5 percent rate requested by the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Regulation of the marijuana industry, including issuing dispensary and processing permits, will be tasked to a five-member commission, according to the legislation. The commission’s chair, along with two other members, would be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. The two remaining members would be appointed upon the recommendations of the Senate president and Assembly speaker, respectively.

The Murphy administration opposed that structure in earlier drafts, preferring either a part-time commission or one that offers more power to the executive branch.

The governor’s office declined comment on Wednesday.

There is no cap on the number of permits and licenses the commission would be able to issue. At least 25 percent of the licenses would go toward smaller entities, called microbusinesses, according to the legislation.

The bill designates “impact zones,” which will prioritize cannabis business permits in municipalities with above-average arrest rates for marijuana-related crimes, unemployment and crime rates. Those include Atlantic City, Camden, Newark and Trenton.

While the legislation prohibits individuals from growing their own marijuana plants, it does open the door to delivery services and consumption areas within certain dispensaries.

The Office of Legislative Services worked into the night on Tuesday hammering out the final technical details of the bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

In the lower house, Assembly members Annette Quijano (D-Union), Jamel Holley (D-Union), Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) and Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex) are the main sponsors.

With the legislation finalized, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) must now whip up enough votes to shepherd all three bills to the governor’s desk. Democratic support for the package is far from universal, with the most vocal dissension coming from Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex).

Last week, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a longtime opponent of legalization and lead sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, said he was leaning toward supporting the recreational use bill.

Sweeney has asked for Murphy’s help in bringing Sens. Nia Gill (D-Essex), Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) on board. Two other senators, Rice and former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Essex), have said they can’t be swayed.

Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin have all said they’d like to see work on marijuana legalization completed by the end of the year.


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