Why marijuana activists are worried about NJ’s legalization plan
TRENTON — Though New Jersey could be less than a year away from voting to legalize marijuana, advocates who have pushed for that aren’t thrilled with proposed legislation that envisions a tightly regulated market and a tax that would eventually reach 25 percent.
Some showed up at the event a few weeks ago where Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, announced his legislation. Their primary concern is that the current plan limits sales to state-licensed retailers, barring anyone from growing even a small number of plants at home.
Oaklyn resident Ricardo Rivera, a registered medical marijuana caregiver for his daughter Tatyana, hoped that if marijuana was made legal in New Jersey, he could grow his own plants at home, rather than pay $600 a month at the medical dispensary.
“New Jersey medical marijuana program is the first medical program in the country that did not allow home grow, and it happened all over again with this new recreational bill,” Rivera said.
The bill would eventually eliminate the current tax on medicinal marijuana. Recreational marijuana would be subject to a tax that would start at 7 percent, then gradually ramp up to 25 percent by the program’s fifth year.
Scutari says Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, has had trouble regulating home-grown marijuana and it’s best to start with a program limited to licensed retailers. He has said he’s open to discussing changes to the bill, though.
Of the eight states that have legalized marijuana, only Washington prevents any home growing.
Rivera said the current proposal is titled in favor of deep-pocketed investors.
“This isn’t just about being allowed to grow your own medicine. This is just limiting an open market, which is what this bill’s doing. It’s in my eyes, and many, just a big monopoly,” Rivera said.
Licenses with annual fees would be required for growers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Rivera said he’s concerned it would be so costly that lower- and middle-class residents couldn’t set up businesses.
“It just seems like the state is designing this again to make the rich richer,” he said.
Rivera is an organizer of a group called Garden State Cannabis Consumers, which met Tuesday at the Camden County Library in Camden to brainstorm ideas for improving the plan to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.
In addition to home growing, suggestions included clubs and lounges for social use and cannabis churches for spiritual use, along with designated smoking areas in large public areas. That wouldn’t be permitted under the current proposal, which would prohibit marijuana consumption in public places.
Group members also recommended price controls to keep it affordable, home delivery, changing marijuana education in schools and even a form of reparations in which people arrested for marijuana in the past would get first crack at the new business. The tax revenues could be used to fund college scholarships for people arrested in the past for marijuana possession.
None of that is in the bill, and activists at the meeting were feeling hurt, Rivera said.
“They were heart-heavy, I can say, and truly, truly concerned,” Rivera said. “That’s why they were all there yesterday because they want to do more. They don’t want to allow for this to happen all over again, like it did with the medical marijuana program.”
The bill would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of cannabis, or 16 ounces of products such as edibles, 72 ounces in liquid form or seven grams of concentrate. Taxes would start at 7 percent and gradually rise to 25 percent in five years.
While it may get hearings this year, and possibly even a vote, its boosters in the Legislature are positioning the concept for approval early next year – after a new governor takes office, replacing Gov. Chris Christie, a staunch opponent of the concept.
The bill wouldn’t take effect until nearly a year after its approval, in the current form, so marijuana wouldn’t be legal in New Jersey until some point in 2019 at the earliest.