Legislature approves NJ’s plan for legalized marijuana
State lawmakers approved a bill Thursday established the framework for New Jersey’s recreational adult-use marijuana industry, as approved by voters in a constitutional amendment six weeks ago.
Democrats approved the bill in mostly party-line votes of 23-17 in the Senate and 49-24 with six votes to abstain in the Assembly. Legislators also voted to downgrade the charges for possession of psychedelic mushrooms and, by a larger margin, to decriminalize the possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana.
“It’s not something that I’m encouraging,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union. “It is something that we need to do to right these many wrongs over these hundreds of years of prohibition against marijuana and create something that’s already there, regulate it and make it good for people and make it safe for people.”
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, said New Jersey voted Nov. 3 to turn the page on cannabis prohibition and that the enabling law directs revenues to cities that have been a focus of the drug war.
“This is a commitment to hope and opportunity, social and economic justice for New Jersey, especially the black and brown communities disproportionately affected by the marijuana prohibition, crime and economic distress,” Quijano said.
Seventy percent of revenue from the sales tax on marijuana purchases and all the money from a new, sliding-scale excise tax will be directed to social-justice programs in designated impact zones. Still, not all Democrats who voted for the bill were impressed by its social-justice efforts.
“It is better than it was, but it’s nothing to pat yourself on the back about,” said state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, who predicted litigation will follow to resolve problems in the pending law.
Most Democrats voted yes, though two were opposed. No Republicans voted for it. Assemblyman Brian Bergen said the workplace protections are too lax.
“Given the potential for significant harm to the public if an employee is impaired on the job, shouldn’t we err on the side of the safety and allow for a strict drug-free workplace especially in safety-sensitive positions?” Bergen said.
State Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said Democrats had botched the new law even though, as a campaign promise of Gov. Phil Murphy, its passage was seen as likely for nearly three years.
“The tax structure on legal marijuana is so outrageous that street-level dealers are going to have a field day,” Testa said. “And almost all of the money generated by this greedy taxation will be funneled to and wasted by, as is usual, the money pits that already receive the bulk of state money and school aid.”
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, objected to Testa’s characterization.
“Impact zones are described as my community, the city of Newark, one of the most disenfranchised areas that has been compounded by the so-called war on drug,” Ruiz said, adding that to "equate it to a money pit is irresponsible.”
There were a number of tense moments in the debate, part of a four-hour voting session conducted remotely by phone due mostly to the snowstorm as well as COVID-19 allowances. Scutari and state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, at one point engaged in a full-on shouting match.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.