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New Jersey Governor And Lawmakers Announce Marijuana Legalization Deal

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After months of debate over the nuances of marijuana legalization legislation, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leaders in the legislature have reached a broad agreement.

In a press release on Tuesday, the governor, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D), Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D) announced the agreement and said that text of a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use will be released “in the coming days.”

That’s a welcome development for advocates, who had the benefit of a pro-legalization governor but worried that his concerns about aspects of legalization such as the tax rates and regulatory structures might derail the reform effort.

“Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system,” Murphy said. “After months of hard work and thoughtful negotiations, I’m thrilled to announce an agreement with my partners in the Legislature on the broad outlines of adult-use marijuana legislation.”

“I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities, while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes,” he said.

While Murphy initially called for a much steeper tax rate than his counterparts in the legislature, a compromise was reached to tax cannabis by weight, rather than by price. Under the agreement, there will be a $42 per ounce excise tax as well as additional local taxes for municipalities that opt to allow manufacturers, wholesalers or retailers.

In his annual budget proposal last week, the governor estimated that the state would collect $60 million in marijuana tax revenue for the 2020 fiscal year.

“This plan will allow for the adult use of cannabis in a responsible way,” Sweeney said of the new deal. “It will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market so that it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been since the end of Prohibition. This plan will also advance important social justice reforms to help reverse the discriminatory impact that drug laws have had on diverse communities.”

Social equity will be a major feature of the legalization bill, the lawmakers emphasized. The legislation will establish a system to expedite the clearing of records for prior low-level cannabis convictions and also create a “virtual expungement process” that would prevent marijuana offenses from affecting things like education, house and occupational licensing.

“As much as we would want this to be automatic, it is functionally not possible,” Murphy said in response to questions about expungements at a press conference on unrelated gun issues on Tuesday. “You have an affirmative action an individual has to take, or in the absence of that a virtual expungement, meaning until that person takes that action, that crime cannot impair their ability—just as race, gender, religion cannot impair your ability—to get a job, to get an education, to get a license, et cetera.”

“It will address enormous social injustice in our system. And while that appears to be under the justice category, it has enormous implications for both the individuals who are finally freed from this prior charge but also for the rest of us. The economic impact, the societal impact, not just on those individuals, but on the rest of us, is potentially enormous.”

The joint announcement from Murphy and lawmakers said that “there are a number of provisions that aim to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs), low- and middle-income individuals, and disadvantaged communities across the state.”

“The agreement reached to legalize adult-use cannabis is the result of incredibly hard work by many people over many months,” Coughlin said. “Getting to this point wasn’t easy. We talked and we negotiated in good faith, but most importantly, we listened.”

“I want to thank Governor Murphy and Senate President Sweeney for their tireless efforts and willingness to compromise so we could put forth the most responsible legislation possible,” he said. “I believe this new, regulated industry will help boost our economy, but I’m particularly proud of the critical social justice components included in the bill.”

The statement from Murphy and the lawmakers doesn’t mention whether allowing people to grow their own marijuana at home is part of the deal.

Under the agreement, the state’s legal marijuana program would be regulated by a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Three of the members will be appointed by the governor without being subject to Senate confirmation, and two would be recommended by Sweeney and Coughlin.

“The prohibition on marijuana has long been a failed policy,” Scutari said. “This plan will bring an end to the adverse effects our outdated drug laws have had on the residents of our state.”

“As a regulated product legalized marijuana will be safe and controlled,” he said. “It is time to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey and this is a well crafted legal reform that will advance social policy in a fair and effective way.”

More details and actual legislative language are still to come, but the announcement offers the clearest look yet at how New Jersey’s legal cannabis system could take shape.

“This was not easy. We’re standing up an entire new industry, so not surprisingly, it took time,” Murphy said at the press conference. “I got there via the notion that in the yawning gaps of social injustice in our state, particularly among peoples who are incarcerated across racial lines.”

Coughlin predicted that a vote on a legalization bill could come on March 25.

Murphy, meanwhile, predicted that legal cannabis sales would be an “early next year reality.” He said it’s “too early for me to tell” whether there’s enough support to pass legalization in either chamber, but “I’m all in to help them get this over the goal line.

“We have to get the votes now. The Senate president, the speaker, myself, their teams—we have to collectively get the votes we need both in the Senate and the Assembly,” he said. “We’ll be working on this jointly.”

The news of a deal in New Jersey comes one day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of neighboring New York announced that he is not optimistic about the chances of including marijuana legalization in his state’s annual budget this year, as he initially proposed. He and lawmakers are saying that they still plan to pursue the issue in separate legislation, however.

New Jersey Governor Includes Legal Marijuana Revenue In Budget Proposal

Photo courtesy of Phil Murphy.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote

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A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.

The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.

Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.

Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.

Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.

“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”

While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.

“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.

What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.

During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.

According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.

Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

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A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.

The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.

Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.

“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”

The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.

While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.

“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.

It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.

A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.

Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Two Simultaneous Hearings On Marijuana Legalization Bills

This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate

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Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.

The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.

But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.

“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”

“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.

“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”

According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”

In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.

“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”

Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.

“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”

Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”

“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.

With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.

“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.

“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”

A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Diversity Provisions Added To Marijuana Banking Bill Up For Congressional Vote This Week

This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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