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New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization

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New Jersey got one step closer to legalizing marijuana on Monday after lawmakers approved an adult-use legalization bill in a joint session of Senate and Assembly committees.

A total of three separate cannabis bills were approved at the hearing: one to fully legalize marijuana, one to expand the state’s existing medical cannabis program and another that would create a system to speed up expungements for people who’ve been convicted for low-level marijuana offenses.

After about four hours of testimony on the full legalization bill, the panels cast votes on that piece of legislation, with it being approved 7-4 with two abstentions on the Senate side. The Assembly panel then signed off by a vote of 7-3 with one abstention.

“Today’s Senate and Assembly votes are a victory for common sense and for sound public policy in New Jersey,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a press release. “We look forward to lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate floors acting swiftly to approve this legislation to send to Governor Murphy to sign into law.”

“New Jersey holds the dubious distinction of ranking second in the nation in per capita annual marijuana arrests. This policy disproportionately impacts young people of color, violates civil liberties, and is an egregious waste of public resources that can be reprioritized elsewhere. The people of New Jersey are ready to move forward. Their representatives should approve this legislation this year and replace the failed practice of prohibition with the sensible policy of legalization and regulation.”

The other two bills—to expand New Jersey’s medical cannabis program and expedite expungements—were also approved by both panels.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), the main sponsor of the legalization proposal, kicked off the hearing by touting the economic and criminal justice benefits of ending prohibition.

He was followed by a large mix of legalization supporters and opponents, including representatives from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Latino Justice and law enforcement associations.

“Today’s vote is a step in the right direction for New Jersey,” DPA’s Roseanne Scotti said in a press release. “For too long, New Jersey’s marijuana laws have harmed families and communities, particularly communities of color. African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites despite similar rates of use, and anecdotal evidence suggests similar disparities for Latinos. Legalizing marijuana for adult-use is essential to help repair these wrongs.”

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who co-founded the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, spoke out against the reform legislation and sparred with lawmakers in especially heated testimony.

Assembly Appropriations Chair John Burzichelli (D) commented on the “long road” to reform and said “we are on the verge of something very significant.”

He also talked about the failures of prohibition and said keeping marijuana “in the shadows” doesn’t “serve us.”

“I believe this is a good bill and one that will change the lives of tens of thousands of New Jersey residents for the better,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano said.

“Lets face it: legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis will be an economic driver that will allow us to reinvest in our communities,” she later said.

The marijuana reform proposals will now head for full floor votes.

“We will continue working the bills towards passage to create a well-regulated and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in social and economic justice,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a press release.

Pending approval by both full chambers the legislation will go on to Gov. Phil Murphy (D), whose office released a statement Monday affirming that the governor “remains committed to legalizing adult-use marijuana, a critical step in eliminating racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Separately, the governor said he’s “very happy” that legalization is moving forward, though he declined to get into the specifics of the legislation.

Murphy’s administration has expressed reservations about certain aspects of the bill—namely who gets to be in charge of regulating the commercial marijuana system and how sales are taxed. The governor reportedly wanted the executive branch to have more regulatory control and called for a steeper tax than the 12 percent rate included in the legislation.

It could be a matter of weeks before Murphy will have the chance to sign the legislation.

“New Jersey is one step closer to replacing marijuana prohibition with sensible regulation,” Kate Bell, general counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Arresting adult cannabis consumers is a massive waste of law enforcement officials’ time and resources, and it does nothing to improve public health or safety.”

“Prohibition forces marijuana sales into the underground market, where it is impossible to control them. Under the proposed regulated system, businesses will be governed by strict rules, and authorities will be empowered to make sure those rules are being followed.”

Besides legalizing cannabis for adult use—the centerpiece of the legislative package—the committees also approved a bill to expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana system. Under the proposal, the list of qualifying medical conditions would be expanded and patients would be able possess an extra half ounce of cannabis during a 30-day window, among other smaller policy changes.

Elsewhere in the Legislature on Monday, a separate Senate committee also approved that bill, which is meant to simplify the process of qualifying for medical cannabis and obtaining it. The bill passed 7-1 in that panel. One state senator on the committee did not vote.

Lastly, while there’s an expungement element included in the broad legalization bill, a separate bill to expedite expungements for low-level marijuana offenses also passed.

You can read the text of the latest versions of all three bills here.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with the latest information on votes for all three marijuana bills and to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project and NORML.

Read The Marijuana Bills New Jersey Lawmakers Will Vote On Next Week

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Sestak Stands On Marijuana

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Joe Sestak, a former congressman from Pennsylvania and three-star vice admiral in the Navy, announced on Sunday that he is launching a relatively late run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Though his record in Congress doesn’t offer many insights into where Sestak stands on marijuana policy, he took one vote in support of shielding state medical cannabis laws from federal interference, and his current campaign site proposes reforming federal laws to facilitate research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Legislation And Policy Actions

Sestak served in Congress from 2007 to 2011. In that time, he did not proactively sponsor or cosponsor any cannabis-related legislation.

The congressman was present for a vote on just one marijuana amendment attached to a spending bill—one to protect states that have legalized medical cannabis from Justice Department intervention—and he voted in favor of the proposal, even though his state had not yet enacted its own medical marijuana law.

Quotes And Social Media Posts

It’s difficult to assess exactly where the candidate stands on marijuana in part because a scan for relevant terms on his social media posts turns up nil.

Adding to the confusion is the apparent lack of public comments about cannabis policy from Sestak—at least any comments that have been reported by media.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did publish an article in 2016 that described Sestak, a former U.S. Navy admiral, as a “longtime supporter of medical access [to marijuana]—especially for vets” but it did not quote the congressman directly. That piece also noted that his position on cannabis decriminalization is unclear.

Statements on his campaign site do provide a small window into his views on the drug war more broadly.

Sestak argued that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be ineffective because “most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents” at legal ports of entry.

He also partially blamed “misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States” for creating crises that leave many to flee their home countries to seek asylum in the U.S.

“Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively—and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability,” he said.

One of the most revealing positions on drug policy that Sestak has offered also comes from his campaign site: he said that he supports efforts to combat mental health conditions and addiction, and one part of that plan involves changing “federal law to allow doctors and scientists to expand research into the potential of certain psychedelic drugs to complement traditional substance abuse and other mental health treatment.”

“Anti-drug laws should never be an impediment to sound scientific research, but especially not during a public health crisis such as this one,” he said.

Discussing veterans issues, Sestak said that the country “must learn from innovative approaches taken to reduce chronic veteran homelessness like Phoenix’s ‘housing first’ strategy in which homeless veterans are given housing before being required to prove sobriety or pass a drug test,” which also seems to indicate an openness to alternative approaches to drug policy.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

It does not appear that Sestak has publicly commented on any personal experience he’s had with marijuana.

Marijuana Under A Sestak Presidency

Though some reports indicate that Sestak supports medical cannabis reform, and he took one step to protect states that have implemented such programs during his time in Congress, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the candidate’s position on marijuana.

At the very least, his willingness to vote in favor of medical cannabis protections ahead of his state enacting a medical marijuana law should give patients in legal states some sense of comfort, although his limited record on the issue raises questions about whether he’d be willing to extend those protections to adult-use states—and whether cannabis reform would be a priority of his administration at all.

That said, the fact that he included a position on psychedelics reform on his campaign website signals that he’s cognizant of the issue and that his views on broader drug policy reform may have simply flown under the radar.

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Hawaii Marijuana Decriminalization Will Take Effect, Governor Says

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Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D), who has at times expressed serious concerns about marijuana policy reform, announced that he will allow a legislature-passed bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis to go into effect.

Ige didn’t include the decrim proposal in a list of legislation he intends to veto by Monday’s deadline.

Lawmakers sent the bill, which punishes possession of three grams of marijuana with a $130 fine instead of jail time, to the governor’s desk in April. As originally introduced, it covered greater amounts of marijuana in line with decriminalization policies in other states, but was watered down as it advanced through the legislative process.

Under current law, possessing cannabis is a petty misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine.

In a press conference to discuss his veto list, Ige called the marijuana legislation “a very tough call” and said went “go back and forth” on the issue before deciding to let the bill take effect.

The governor said he would have preferred if the decriminalization proposal included provisions aimed at “young people who we would want to get into substance abuse or other kinds of programs to help them deal with drug use.”

In the end, he said, he decided “it would be best not to veto that.”

Watch Ige discuss his decision not to veto marijuana decriminalization, about 23:35 into the video below:

Some legislative leaders have expressed interest in considering legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of broader cannabis reforms in Hawaii, Ige said that the state “can benefit from not being at the head of the table.”

“We continue to learn from other states about the problems that they see with recreational marijuana,” he said, echoing concerns he has about legalization and noting that he’s been discussing the possible reform with governors from some western states that have already enacted it. “We would be smart to engage and recognize what’s happening in other states, acknowledge the challenges and problems it has raised.”

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment that Ige should be “commended” for not vetoing the bill.

“It’s also encouraging that he’s having ongoing conversations with other governors from states that have legalized adult-use cannabis,” he said. “Hawai’i can indeed learn a great deal from other states, including the enactment of social equity measures to ensure broad local participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and those harmed by the drug war.”

Also on Monday, Ige announced that he intends to veto a bill allowing medical cannabis patients to transport their medicine between islands.

“Marijuana, including medical cannabis, remains illegal under federal law. Both the airspace and certain areas of water fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government,” he wrote. “This bill may lead travelers, acting in reliance on this provision, to erroneously believe they are immune from federal prosecution.”

Another proposal on the governor’s veto list would establish a hemp licensing program.

“There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis,” he reasoned.

Finally, Ige plans to veto a bill to scale back the use of asset forfeiture, which is often used against people accused of drug crimes, with the governor calling the practice “an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment.”

Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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USDA Sets Target Deadline To Release Hemp Regulations

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered new insights into its rulemaking process for hemp regulations in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Of particular note is the deadline by which USDA is aiming to release its interim final rule for the newly legal crop: August. Previously, the department simply said it would have the rules in place in time for the 2020 planting season.

“This action will initiate a new part 990 establishing rules and regulations for the domestic production of hemp,” the new notice states. “This action is required to implement provisions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill).”

The hemp update update is part of a larger regulatory agenda for various agencies that’s being released by the Trump administration.

“It is great to see that USDA is on track to complete federal hemp farming regulations this year,” Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, told Marijuana Moment.

A USDA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email that the August projection is the department’s “best estimate” for when the regulations will be released. It remains USDA’s intention “to have the regulations in place by this fall to allow for a 2020 planting season.”

“However, the clearance process will dictate the actual timing of the publication,” the spokesperson said.

While USDA officials have said the department didn’t plan to expedite the regulatory process despite strong interest among stakeholders, it seems to be making steady progress so far. The department said in March that it has “begun the process to gather information for rulemaking.”

USDA has also outlined the basic elements that will be required when states or tribes are eventually able to submit regulatory plans for federal approval. Those proposals will have to include information about the land that will be used to cultivate hemp, testing standards, disposal procedures, law enforcement compliance, annual inspections and certification for products and personnel.

The new update comes about six months after hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But until USDA releases its guidelines, hemp farmers must adhere to the earlier rules established under a narrower research-focused provision of the 2014 version of the agriculture legislation.

While the rules are yet to be published and there are therefore some restrictions on what hemp farmers can lawfully do, USDA has clarified several policies that have already gone into effect in recent months.

The department is accepting intellectual property applications for hemp products, for example. It also explained that hemp seeds can be lawfully imported from other countries and that the crop can be transported across state lines since it’s been federally descheduled.

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