New Jersey Inches Toward Marijuana Legalization With Legislative Approval

Despite Governor Phil Murphy's campaign promise to legalize cannabis within the first 100 days of his term, on Monday the New Jersey legislature had finally gotten around to — almost — making legalization a reality.

After a four-hour hearing that featured testimonies from about 90 opponents and supporters of cannabis law reform, including police, clergy, and health experts, lawmakers advanced a measure to legalize cannabis with a vote of 7-4 (and two abstentions) in the Senate budget committee and 7-2 (and one abstention) in the Assembly budget panel.

This marks the first official legislative action to legalize adult use marijuana since Murphy took office in January. However, the governor's promise still stands on uncertain ground, as another voting session is scheduled before the year's end, which would move the measure to the floor of each legislative chamber.

New Jersey's legalization bill, which debuted last week, would allow those 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and would create a regulated, commercial industry, featuring a 12 percent excise tax, including a 6.625 sales tax, and a two percent excise tax for towns where cannabis businesses reside. If passed, it would also expedite the process of record expungement within six months for those who have been convicted of possession or distribution violations. The bill also requires that at least 15 percent of commercial cannabis licenses go to "minority owned businesses."

Murphy, himself, however, has declined to state support for the bill that's making its way through the legislature. "It's too early to tell," he said at a news conference. "We haven't commented on specifics, but I am very happy that this is moving." If the bill passes through all the committees, the legislature would get Murphy's approval on the bill before it's subject to a full floor vote.  

While Murphy parades social justice as a leading incentive to legalize cannabis (after all, New Jersey cannabis policing is the most racially disproportionate in the country, with non-whites three times as likely more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis in New Jersey, despite similar rates of use), pro-legalization opponents of the bill nonetheless fear the legal program, as currently delineated in the legislation, would not provide enough entrepreneurial opportunity to people of color.

"This bill is being sold under the auspices of social justice, but it's really about money," said Democratic state Senator Ron Rice, who called for a statement on racial impact. "It's not about social justice. It's about money for white investors."

To Rice's point, bill sponsor Democratic state Senator Nicholas Scutari has touted the potential of a legal cannabis program as a boost to New Jersey's economy. Afterall, according to some estimates state stands to gain $300 million in annual tax revenue from legal marijuana. New Jersey's cannabis industry would be regulated by a governor-appointed five-person commission, with approval from the state Senate.

“Today’s Senate and Assembly votes are a victory for common sense and for sound public policy in New Jersey,” said Erik Altieri - executive director of NORML. “We look forward to lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate floors acting swiftly to approve this legislation to send to Governor Murphy to sign into law.” As New Jersey currently ranks second in the country for per capita annual marijuana arrests, he added, prohibition disproportionately targets people of color and wastes public resources. "The people of New Jersey are ready to move forward," said Altieri. "Their representatives should approve this legislation this year and replace the failed practice of prohibition with the sensible policy of legalization and regulation.”

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