Marijuana moving ahead, as legislators eye reparations and taxes
Lawmakers in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature have advanced legislation to implement the legalization of adult-use marijuana that state residents voted to approve on Election Day.
Hours of testimony heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee on Monday ended with the passage of identical bills that outline the licensing and operation of the eventual market.
Sponsors of the legislation heard no shortage of complaints and suggested changes from colleagues and industry advocates, but plans seem to still point to votes by the full houses before the end of November.
"I don't think you're going to find a more responsible piece of legislation on this planet," state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said. "This is as good as it gets, I think."
Scutari, though, said amendments will be made to the bill in the next week, based on comments made during the hearing. Because of this, a vote on Nov. 16, as he had originally hoped for, may not happen, he said.
Budget committees in the Assembly and Senate are scheduled to consider the legislation on Thursday.
The 206-page bill, most of which mirrors legislation debated in 2019, ensures a portion of the market is handled by New Jersey residents. It also carves out a share for smaller operations, aka "microbusinesses," along with women, veterans and racial minorities.
"This legislation, in and of itself, is social justice," Scutari said in response to criticism that the bill does not go far enough in benefiting the communities impacted the most by the current "war on drugs."
Advocates on Monday called for a share of tax revenue to be dedicated to so-called "impact zones."
"For the ACLU, racial and social justice must be at the core of legalization," said Sarah Fajardo, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "We believe that New Jersey can take additional steps to make sure we're investing revenue in those communities most harmed."
Black people in New Jersey are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite similar rates of use, according to ACLU research.
During the hearing, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, mentioned plans to introduce new legislation on Thursday that would create reparations for those disproportionately impacted by New Jersey's current stance on marijuana. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, tweeted about his intentions to impose an "additional user fee" on recreational marijuana that would help reduce the financial burden on New Jersey's urban communities. Gov. Phil Murphy on social media announced his support for such a move.
But Scutari advised against overtaxing "a product before it's even being sold."
"We're already competing with the black market," Scutari said. "The No. 1 priority, at least my No. 1 priority, is to get rid of drug dealers."
Lawmakers on the Senate panel, both Democrats and Republicans, also voiced concerns about employees' rights under the bill, as well as concerns regarding marijuana edibles and the circumstances under which a cop can pull someone over whenever legalization officially kicks in.
Patrick Duff, a legalization advocate for decades, told lawmakers that the cost of marijuana should be reviewed so all adults could benefit. He estimated New Jersey's current cannabis price at $65 per one-eighth ounce.
"Without any thought of the cost of the product, it's going to make it so poor people don't have access, sick people don't have access, old people don't have access," Duff said.
Contact reporter Dino Flammia at email@example.com.