NJ marijuana legalization vote scheduled, though details in flux
TRENTON — Despite disagreements about key details, such as the tax rate, lawmakers plan to give initial approval Monday to legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey.
In addition to deciding where to set the state tax rate, debate continues about how much tax cities and towns can tack on. A recent proposal included a 12 percent state tax and option for a 2 percent local tax. Early this year, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration floated a 25 percent tax rate.
The administration also isn’t comfortable with the approach for regulating marijuana, which would be vested in an outside panel with legislative appointees. That’s seen by Democratic lawmakers as a necessary safeguard, after then-Gov. Chris Christie was slow to implement medical marijuana during his eight years in office.
Bill Caruso, a member of the steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, said interest is peaking ahead of the first-ever vote on legalization in New Jersey.
“Last week at the League of Municipalities, there was probably the most robust amount of discussion going on at the municipal level about cannabis – ever,” Caruso said.
But it’s not all favorable. Local officials worry about who will pay the costs associated with legalization, such as training police and K-9 units, and whether they will share in state revenues once the transition costs are completed.
“That’s part of the reason why cannabis legalization has some attraction for the New Jersey public. They understand there’s revenue to be derived from it. That’s not the only reason, of course, but that’s one of them,” Caruso said.
Murphy promised as a candidate to legalize marijuana in his first hundred days in office, then said in his budget that sales would begin in January. So he says the Legislature is moving slower than he would like.
“I would just say to whether it’s a legislator who’s on the fence or an individual who’s on the fence out there, I can understand perhaps your skepticism. But I want to just say the following: We’re not inventing marijuana. Marijuana exists,” Murphy said in a public radio call-in program Monday night hosted by WBGO.
Murphy said the change would address a racial disparity in incarceration, undercut drug dealers, protect kids through strict enforcement – and make the state some money in tax revenue.
“That’s the last reason, but it’s a reason that is relevant. To make some money as we do this,” Murphy said.
The state budget approved in July includes $20 million from a “marijuana tax” – and it’s never quite been clear what that’s referring to, as the state doesn’t yet have such a tax. It does collect sales tax on medical marijuana sales, though that is counted under the sales tax.
Changes to medical marijuana, including possibly the elimination of the sales tax, are also scheduled for a vote Monday.
Once the legalization bill is signed into law, sales could begin within a couple of months, Caruso said.
“There will be a need for the current dispensaries to adequately meet the supply of the current patients and the growing number of patients, but you could see recreational cannabis being sold to adults 21 and older perhaps by the springtime,” Caruso said.
Another six marijuana dispensaries should be approved by the state Health Department by January and could open in the second half of 2019. That could be followed by another call for new licenses, as well as whatever changes the new law may provide.