A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey calls for an initial tax rate of 7 percent, increasing gradually to 25 percent by the program’s fifth year.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said he thinks estimates that legalized marijuana could result in $300 million a year in new state taxes “might even be on the conservative side,” but he wants to start with a low tax rate to “undercut the black market.”

“We don’t want to make marijuana legal and have people still buying it from the street corner,” said Scutari. “We want to bring it out of the shadows. We want to get our neighborhoods safer. We want to make sure that the product is affordable and is not something that we’re going to cut undercut by people that are selling it illegally. The whole purpose of the program is to get rid of drug dealers.”

The 57-page bill, which will be subject to hearings and many revisions, calls for a tax rate on marijuana of 7 percent in the first year, 10 percent in the second year, 15 percent in the third, 20 percent in the fourth and 25 percent thereafter. The sales tax on medical marijuana would be repealed.

Scutari said he’s introducing the 57-page bill now and planning hearings this year so that it can be approved within the first 100 days of the incoming governor’s administration, meaning late next April. Gov. Chris Christie opposes the idea, but many of the candidates seeking to replace him approve of it.

“I want New Jersey to be on the forefront of the East Coast,” Scutari said. “I want it to be ready for our next governor’s signature when he gets here.”

He said some lawmakers are privately supportive but reluctant to do so publicly and that he’d like the opportunity to talk with lawmakers who have questions.

“Despite the enormous popularity of the polling for marijuana, believe it or not there are still members that are concerned as to whether or not this is a very controversial bill. I don’t believe that it is anymore. I think that people have had it with prohibition,” Scutari said.

It would be legal for people 21 years and older, similar to alcohol. People would be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana infused product in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form, and 7 grams of concentrate. They couldn’t consume it publicly.

People wouldn’t be allowed to grow marijuana plants at home for their own use. All marijuana cultivators, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers would be licensed by the state.

Scutari said that the home-grown market has been a problem in Colorado and that for the sake of simplicity and effectiveness, it’s best for New Jersey to start with a more limited program.

“I’m not suggesting that that’s something that we can’t revisit at a later time. But we want to give the industry every chance that it can be to be successful,” Scutari said.

Scutari said regulators should focus on the licensed industry, rather than concern themselves with whether individuals are growing the limited number and size of plants that would be allowed and that none of that marijuana is sold or transported to states where its use would remain illegal.

“It’s a problem, and that’s not a problem that I think we want to take on when we’re creating an entire industry, which is complicated enough to do off the bat,” Scutari said.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, said he expects that home-growing would ultimately be approved in the state at a later time.

“Home cultivation is an important consideration, but it’s certainly not a stopper. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that would make me want to oppose this bill,” Wolski said.

Roseann Scotti, New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the lack of home-growing is “one of our bigger disappointments” with the proposal.

“There’s no reason to have that. I think it’s very similar to home brewing. If you look under our alcohol system, people are allowed to brew small amounts of some sorts of alcohol. Same thing should apply to marijuana,” Scotti said.

“This bill seems to be very skewed toward the marijuana industry, to just having people with a lot of money come in and get themselves licenses and make more money,” Scotti said. “And then at the same time we’re going to continue to say if you’re growing a couple plants at home for your own consumption, you’re a criminal and we’re still going to lock you up. That’s not right.”

Scotti also said the expungement of past marijuana convictions should be automatic. The bill says anyone convicted of marijuana possession while it was illegal will be eligible to apply to have their records expunged.

“If you start out with a bad bill, you’re guaranteed to have an even worse bill once the compromises are made. That’s our position,” Scotti said.

The possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana would be decriminalized upon the enactment of the bill but before its implementation, limiting fines to $100.

The bill would take effect 360 days after its enactment. Given that it wouldn’t pass until early 2018, at the earliest, marijuana wouldn’t be legally sold in New Jersey for recreational purposes until 2019.

Scott Rudder, a former assemblyman who is now president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association, said the bill would help create jobs and entrepreneurs while simultaneously providing a safer alternative to opioids.

“It’s about access to medication for patients. It’s about adults making adult decisions about what they can choose for themselves,” Rudder said.

Municipalities would have one year from the bill’s effective date to enact an ordinance barring or regulating marijuana facilities. They’d be allowed in any city or town that didn’t ban them. No municipality could then act to change or create marijuana facility restrictions for five years.

“If a municipality doesn’t want marijuana facilities in their municipality, they don’t have to have it,” Scutari said. “They have to pass an ordinance within a certain period of time saying that they can’t. But once they allow it, we’re not going to let them the next following year then turn around and say, ‘Hey, we don’t want this in our community anymore.’”

He said the five-year window is needed so investors can feel secure their businesses won’t be booted.

“We want to make sure that municipalities have an opportunity to govern themselves and reflect the values of the people that are there. But we also want to make sure that the industry that is investing important money into these towns and creating jobs, that they have a sound footing for making that investment,” he said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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