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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

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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

Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation

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A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.

“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.

“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”

“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”

Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.

“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”

“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.

Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.

“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”

Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.

For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.

Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.

Eleven Senators Push To Let Marijuana Businesses Access Federal Loan Programs

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus

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North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.

“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”

Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.

“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”

The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.

North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.

California activists for campaigns to amend the state’s legal cannabis program and legalize psilocybin mushrooms are asking for a digital signature option.

Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.

Virginia Groups Push Governor To Amend Marijuana Decriminalization Bill On His Desk

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Arizona Legal Marijuana Campaign Asks Supreme Court To Allow Electronic Signatures Amid Coronavirus

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Several campaigns to put initiatives on Arizona’s November ballot—including one to legalize marijuana—are asking the state Supreme Court to allow electronic signature gathering amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has made in-person ballot petitioning all but impossible.

Smart and Safe Arizona, the group behind the cannabis measure, along with three other campaigns, filed a petition with the court on Thursday, requesting that it direct the secretary of state to let them digitally collect signatures. They stressed that the infrastructure already exists, as residents are able to use a system called E-Qual to sign ballot petitions for individual candidates running for office.

While the marijuana campaign has already gathered more than 320,000 signatures, which is well over the required 237,645 signatures for statutory proposals, they have yet to be verified and activists would like to continue collection efforts to ensure that they qualify for the ballot.

In the filing, the groups argued that limiting the E-Qual system to office seekers is unconstitutional. However, state law stipulates that it can only be used for that purpose, so it remains to be seen whether court action will produce the intended result. There was a bill filed last year to expand its utility to allow digital signature gathering for initiatives, but it has not advanced in the legislature.

“Legal access to E-Qual for these citizen initiatives is the right thing for public health and democracy,” attorneys representing the groups said in a statement. “Following Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order issued Monday and current CDC recommendations, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures on paper, at people’s homes, or in public spaces, is impossible to do safely and responsibly during this pandemic. E-Qual is a very reasonable remedy.”

The legalization petition would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. People could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program

Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.

The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.

“The Committees have explored potential alternatives, such as mailing petitions to interested persons to circulate within their families,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson said in a declaration filed with the court. “This, however, is expensive, inefficient, and has no realistic likelihood of permitting the Committees’ to gather large numbers of valid petition signatures.”

The legalization group was joined by campaigns to limit school vouchers, provide sentencing reform and increase taxes on the wealthy to fund public education in the petition. Separately, two other campaigns—to enact voting reform and end surprise hospital billings—filed a similar lawsuit in a federal court on Thursday.

Smart and Safe Arizona is not the only drug policy reform campaign to request electronic signature gathering since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Activists in California released a video last month asking officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

Others have generally shut down campaign activities in light of the pandemic, which has resulted in shutter businesses and shelter-in-place orders across the country.

An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.

Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Idaho Activists Suspend Campaign To Legalize Medical Marijuana Due To Coronavirus

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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