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.
— Mike Davis (@byMikeDavis) November 26, 2018
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.”
“We stand on the verge of a major change in New Jersey,” said Assembly Appropriations Chair John Burzichelli on setting guidelines for adult cannabis use. “It has been a long road, but we are on the verge of something very significant.” pic.twitter.com/KAj74FA0ZZ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 26, 2018
He also talked about the failures of prohibition and said keeping marijuana “in the shadows” doesn’t “serve us.”
Appropriations Chair John Burzichelli, casting a yes vote for legalization of adult marijuana use: It is time to bring marijuana out of the shadows pic.twitter.com/2JAXNoex0m
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 26, 2018
“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.
"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," says @AnnetteQuijano on the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act pic.twitter.com/UQpnzGz3Cx
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 26, 2018
“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.
"Lets face it: legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis will be an economic driver that will allow us to reinvest in our communities," says @AnnetteQuijano voting yes on the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act pic.twitter.com/QcwTMPuSKS
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 26, 2018
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.
"Addressing the social inequities are job No. 1 [with legalizing marijuana]," Gov. Murphy says.
— NJ.com (@njdotcom) November 26, 2018
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.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves
President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.
Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”
“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.
“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”
In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.
Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:
Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.
Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.
During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) February 22, 2019
Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.
He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference
The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.
Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.
“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.
“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.
Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.
“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.
The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.
During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.
The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.
Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.
The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.
Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill
But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”
Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.
Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.
This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization
A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”
“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.
If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.
“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”
“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”
Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.
The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.
“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”
The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.
If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.
This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.