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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.

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

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