NJ legal weed is back in Trenton. Here's what's next for marijuana legalization.
TRENTON - After months of hiatus, the push to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is back on.
It's been nearly two years of will-they-or-won't-they debate, with a legal weed bill coming only a few votes short in March. But those votes never came.
After months of politicking by legislative leaders, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and bill sponsor Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, introduced a ballot measure that would leave the decision of marijuana legalization up to New Jersey voters.
On Thursday, the Legislature will host the initial public hearings on the ballot bill — the first steps in a winding road that could eventually make New Jersey the 12th state to legalize weed.
What's the next step?
The next step to legalizing marijuana in New Jersey comes this Thursday. At 10 a.m., the Assembly Oversight committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed ballot measure.
At 1:30 p.m., the Senate Commerce Committee will do the same.
The bill was passed by those committees each time — but never went to the full Assembly or Senate for a vote.
And then what?
The next step would be for the Senate and Assembly to hold a full vote on the legal weed ballot bill.
The Assembly already has the ballot resolution on its agenda for Monday, Dec. 18, though that's subject to change.
Does this actually have a shot of passing?
Both the Senate and Assembly are expected to pass the marijuana legalization ballot bill. But exactly how easily it passes does play a role.
If three-fifths of both houses — 24 votes in the Senate and 48 votes in the Assembly — approve the legal weed ballot measure, it will officially be placed on the November 2020 ballot.
But that's unlikely to occur, said Bill Caruso, a co-founder of grassroots marijuana advocacy group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.
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While the push to legalize weed through the legislative process had clear groups with clear positions, it's much murkier this time around, he said.
For example, social justice advocates aren't enthused about a ballot measure because it would mean another year of marijuana arrests.
"You're going to have trouble on all fronts," Caruso said. "There's folks who have never been for this and folks who are still on the fence. You have folks on the social justice side who are upset that 94 people are being arrested each day.
"And there's always the (lawmaker) who holds out on the first vote but redeems it on the second," he said.
That second vote would occur next year if the bills pass by a smaller margin — they still need at least 21 Senate votes and 41 Assembly votes. Only after the full Senate and Assembly pass the ballot bill twice will it be placed on the ballot for Election Day 2020.
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Will they decriminalize marijuana in the meantime?
Decriminalization is a little up in the air at the moment. Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy called for it as "critical short-term relief while we await a ballot measure on legalization next November."
"Decriminalization of adult-use marijuana cannot be our long-term solution," Murphy said. "Maintaining a status quo that sees roughly 600 individuals, disproportionately people of color, arrested in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses is wholly unacceptable."
Both Murphy and Sweeney previously said they were against decriminalizing the drug, as it would take away from the push to legalize weed.
There hasn't been any legislative movement on decriminalizing marijuana in months, and it's unlikely a bill could get drafted, clear committee, passed and signed into law in the next two weeks, Caruso said.
"If you ask 10 people what 'decriminalization' means, you'll get 10 different answers," he said. "That's falling apart very quickly as a pathway forward."
Under current law, possession of under 50 grams of marijuana is a disorderly persons offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of over 50 grams is a fourth-degree crime, which comes with a maximum 18-month prison sentence and $25,000 fine.
The last marijuana decriminalization bill that made any progress was introduced by Assemblywoman Annnette Quijano, D-Union, in May. Her bill would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, subjecting unauthorized users to only the $50 civil penalty.
Under that bill, possession of up to one pound of marijuana would be a disorderly persons offense on the first offense and subsequent offenses would be a fourth-degree crime. Possession of one to five pounds of marijuana would be considered a third-degree crime.
Quijano's bill was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in May.
What about the details?
By design, constitutional amendments in New Jersey are broad.
When lawmakers were on the verge of passing a legal weed bill in March, it tackled everything from possession limits to dispensary licenses, home deliveries and consumption lounges.
The ballot measure, instead, lays out just the basics: Do you want to legalize weed, which will be subject to the state sales tax (and, the Legislature approves it, an additional 2% tax levied by some towns)?
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When will they figure those details out?
Any other details would be worked out in accompanying laws if the ballot measure passes, or through the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the established-but-not-actually-formed governing body that would oversee all things New Jersey cannabis, including recreational and medical marijuana.
By staying broad, it gives the state the ability to be flexible in case it needs to adjust the laws governing marijuana in the future.
"Ballot questions can and should be broadly written because it's important to be flexible," New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Scott Rudder told the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey when the ballot bill was introduced. "You want to have some ability to make corrective action."
But this presents a major issue, social justice advocates warn. The marijuana legalization bill included numerous social justice components, such as mandating the inclusion of minority cannabis business owners and addressing expunging previous marijuana arrests from a user's record.
If those aren't in the ballot question, they could easily be lost in the shuffle when the CRC — or future lawmakers — start to iron out the details of the legal weed industry, Caruso said.
"You can't put in 'set-asides' for minorities (seeking marijuana business licenses)," Caruso said. "You're just coming back to this place where we're still locking people up, we still don't have the economic benefits and we're still waiting for hte ballot to pass."
When will dispensaries open if voters approve it in November 2020?
There's no definite answer here.
The CRC will be in charge of issuing and overseeing dispensaries. That commission was established as part of the Honig Act that passed earlier this year, and according to that law, is supposed to be set up by January.
This should give the CRC a head-start in establishing rules and regulations for what a New Jersey marijuana industry would look like.
In other states, it's taken about a year before the first recreational dispensaries opened. In Massachusetts, it took nearly 18 months.
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There's a possible shortcut for legal weed purchases: If more medical marijuana dispensaries open in New Jersey (as the Honig Act intended) and the shortage issues that face the state's 63,000 medical marijuana patients are resolved, the CRC could allow those dispensaries to begin selling recreationally, as well.
But to date, only two satellite locations of existing dispensaries have opened their doors and the supply-and-demand issues are nowhere near resolved. And having a medical marijuana dispensary turn recreational would likely require local approval, which many municipalities are unlikely to provide.
Mike Davis writes about the seemingly never-ending push to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, including the effects it would have on the economy, the black market and regular people. No, he can't tell you where to buy illegal drugs. Contact him at 732-643-4223, firstname.lastname@example.org or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.