Medical marijuana expansion approved by NJ Senate, expungement delayed
What could have been a momentous day for marijuana law in New Jersey fizzled a bit Thursday at the Statehouse, although the state Senate did overwhelmingly approve a bill that that significantly expands New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.
A proposal to erase pot possession convictions wasn’t called for an expected vote, and a change made to the expansion of the medical program means it now requires another vote in the Assembly before it reaches the governor.
The Senate approved the medical marijuana expansion 33-4, with five senators who were opposed to the program’s creation in 2010 now supporting its growth:
Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, voted for it but said “it a crime” to keep charging a sales tax on the drug until Jan. 1, 2025.
“How dare we use the term medical, when it is, and charge poor people and working people and families sales tax on something that helps them feel better. It is outrageous,” Singer said.
Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said low-income constituents find they cannot use the program because of the high costs for registering and some of the nation’s highest prices for medical marijuana.
“So we’re leaving a lot of people in pain and misery because of the high cost of medical marijuana and also, adding insult to injury, by putting a tax on it as well,” Turner said.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said it’s taxed because the state spends a significantly money on oversight and regulation that the federal government normally does but won’t for marijuana.
“It’s just amazing to me how far we have come and how far we have to go on this fight,” Scutari said.
Senator Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said some changes will make it more affordable, such as reducing the number of visits to the doctor that are required each year and expanding the supply by adding more growers and dispensaries.
“This will have the desired effect in terms of the dollars and cents for patients. Should it be more affordable? Absolutely. Should insurance carriers be able to cover it as a benefit? Absolutely,” Vitale said.
The bill must make one more stop before reaching Gov. Phil Murphy. Though the Assembly approved it last week, 65-5, it must concur with an amendment the Senate made to encourage industry workers to unionize. That language was in the bill but in a way that didn’t apply to existing dispensaries.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said there was "a drafting error" in the expungement bill that will be fixed over the next 10 days. He said there’s no internal party controversy and that the delay is not connected to the broader issue of decriminalizing marijuana possession.
“Decriminalization is a separate subject that the speaker and I had a conversation on today to – again, trying to figure it out,” Sweeney said. “It’s a – look, here’s one the governor and I agree on right now.”
Sweeney said the Senate vote on the expungement bill will be held June 10. That's also probably the day the Assembly will probably approve the medical marijuana bill and send it to Murphy. It's not clear if the Assembly will take up expungement that day, as well.
The five senators who voted against the creation of the medical marijuana program but supported its expansion Thursday were Dawn Addiego, D-Burlington; Richard Codey, D-Essex; Tom Kean Jr., R-Union; Steve Oroho, R-Sussex; and Ron Rice, D-Essex. Addiego was in the Assembly, and a Republican, in 2010.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, voted against the bill in 2010 but didn’t vote Thursday, though he was present. In a floor speech, he said he no longer believes the marijuana doesn’t provide some valid medical benefits but that hemp is a better source for its helpful cannabinoids.
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, voted for the bill in 2010 but against it Thursday.