New Jersey is one step closer to launching legal marijuana sales as approved by voters last month after the state Senate and Assembly passed landmark legislation Thursday to establish a framework for the new market. The proposal now heads to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy (D) for his signature.
Both chambers of legislature also approved separate bills to decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of marijuana and reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin. The two provisions were once parts of a single measure, but lawmakers spun off the psychedelic mushroom component into standalone legislation after some took issue with pairing them together.
The marijuana sales legislation (A21/S21)—passed by the Assembly on a 49–24 vote, with six abstentions, and approved by the Senate with a 23-17 tally—is by far the most sweeping of the bills. It has also generated some controversy. Introduced by sponsors just days after more than 67 percent of voters approved a marijuana legalization referendum on Election Day, it ran into repeated delays over concerns about social equity, licensing rules and drug testing of workers.
The psilocybin bill cleared the Senate by a 22-15 vote, with three abstentions, and passed the Assembly, 51-22, with six abstentions.
The marijuana decriminalization proposal was approved by the Assembly in a 64-12 vote, with three abstentions, and the Senate approved it, 31-2.
The final cannabis legalization legislation is the result of a compromise announced less than a week ago by top lawmakers and the governor, and includes a number of amendments made in committees earlier this week and only published online for public consumption after the fact on Wednesday afternoon. Sponsors have explained their rush by saying it’s necessary to pass the legislation before the voter-approved legalization of cannabis in the state Constitution takes effect on January 1.
After the deal was reached, the governor and legislative leaders released a joint statement saying the revised legislation “will accomplish our shared goals of delivering restorative justice and ensuring that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs see the economic benefits of the adult-use cannabis market.”
We have passed #S21, which will provide the most sweeping social justice reforms in the nation & shift NJ’s #marijuana policy. These laws will decriminalize #marijuana, dismiss pending trials, expunge prior records, & repeal mandatory minimum sentences. https://t.co/YMfn0orKbR pic.twitter.com/tJRvD6OsPz
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) December 17, 2020
“This is a historic reform that will have a real-life impact on social justice, law enforcement and the state’s economy. It will launch a new cannabis industry with the potential to create jobs and economic activity at a time when it is desperately needed,” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) said in a press release after the bill’s passage. “We will now be able to move forward to correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color at the same time that marijuana is regulated and made legal for adults.”
Among the most notable changes to the bill since its introduction last month is the inclusion of a social equity excise tax and a provision to route 70 percent of all state marijuana sales tax to so-called impact zones, areas determined by the state to have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. The money would fund legal aid, health care, workforce training and other programs for residents of those areas.
Asw. @AnnetteQuijano on the passage of A-21, regulating Adult-Use Cannabis in New Jersey:
"This is a commitment to hope and opportunity, and social and economic justice for New Jerseyans – especially black and brown communities." pic.twitter.com/9hU2x1UeCZ
— NJ Assembly Democrats (@njassemblydems) December 17, 2020
.@AnnetteQuijano , @jamelholley , @AswTimberlake , @AswMcKnight , @JoeDanielsen17 & @BenjieWimberly BILL GUIDING REGULATION OF ADULT-USE CANNABIS IN NEW JERSEY HEADS TO GOVERNOR’S DESK https://t.co/pv5pteNlyd
— NJ Assembly Democrats (@njassemblydems) December 17, 2020
Sweeney, along with Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D), has also proposed a separate 2021 ballot question that would enshrine equity funding as a constitutional amendment and as a result shield the money from being directed to other programs as part of the state’s annual budget process.
While equity advocates have welcomed those changes, the ACLU of New Jersey and others say the new law still wouldn’t do enough to redress racial injustices of the drug war or ensure a path for victims of prohibition to profit from the new industry, as some other legal states have attempted to do.
Our work is still unfinished.
We have more work to do during the regulatory and budget processes and in future legislation.
We’ll keep fighting for more equity provisions that address the injustices of cannabis prohibition and build an inclusive industry at every level.
— ACLU of New Jersey (@ACLUNJ) December 17, 2020
Jessica Gonzalez, general counsel for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said this week that she would have liked to see lawmakers add a special social equity status for license applicants. “There’s still a considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding the tax allocation to social equity programs,” she said.
The legislation passed Thursday would give priority to applications for businesses that include a person who has resided in an impact zone for three or more years, or for businesses that plan to hire at least 25 of their employees from impact zones. Gonzalez and others warn that could allow large businesses to move in to a town and hire only a small number of local workers.
Another recent change to New Jersey’s cannabis legislation would limit the state to granting 37 marijuana cultivation licenses to commercial growers during the first two years of legal sales. That could benefit existing medical cannabis producers, who would be allowed to sell to adults over 21 as soon as they certify they have enough supply to meet existing patient demand.
Proponents of dropping the license cap, meanwhile, said removing it would allow a more diverse array of businesses to participate, including those with less access to capital. The legislation does not set a limit on licenses for microbusinesses, or those that employ 10 or fewer people.
Under another recent amendment, employers would be allowed to require workers to take drug tests based on “reasonable” suspicion of cannabis use in addition to pre-employment or regular employee drug screening. Drug tests would need to be done alongside a physical examination done by a person specifically trained to recognize cannabis use, which some businesses have complained would be impracticable.
Meanwhile, legalization advocates have complained that the legislation would continue to criminalize people who grow their own cannabis at home for personal consumption—unlike most other legalized states.
The legalization of #marijuana will usher in a new industry that can support over 40,000 #jobs while creating #economic activity that NJ desperately needs at this time. We are excited by the potential growth that this industry shows for the #GardenState.https://t.co/mRv6WavlEj pic.twitter.com/ggPM9fEG3L
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) December 17, 2020
A separate cannabis bill up Thursday for a full vote by the legislature would decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of marijuana. That measure, S2535/A1897, was introduced before voters approved marijuana legalization but would nevertheless still apply, removing criminal and civil penalties for cannabis possession. The commercial sales regulation bill, by contrast, allows legal possession of up to a single ounce of marijuana.
The decriminalization measure would also allow for “virtual” expungements of cannabis possession convictions that occurred prior to the bill’s enactment and prevent police from using marijuana odor as a justification to perform a search.
“Not only are we decriminalizing possession but also first offenses for low-level distribution, a move which will offer individuals a second chance and ensure they do not become entangled in the system the first time they are caught selling small quantities of marijuana,” Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz (D), the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement last month. “This is yet another step towards bringing justice and equity to historically impacted communities.”
The marijuana decriminalization bill at one point contained a provision that would also reduce criminal penalties for possession of psilocybin mushrooms, although it would not decriminalize it completely. That amendment was added by Scutari in committee, and then removed over concerns it could derail the broader decriminalization measure.
It was reintroduced as a standalone bill, A5084/S3256 and is also set for final legislative votes on Thursday. The measure would reduce possession of up to one ounce of psilocybin mushrooms to a disorderly persons offense, punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) late last month directed prosecutors to adjourn most marijuana possession cases until at least January 25. Legal sales could kick off early next year, and passage of the decriminalization bill would eliminate the need for most prosecutions for simple possession.
Sweeney, the Senate president, applauded the attorney general’s move. “Now that the people of NJ have spoken,” he wrote in a tweet, “no one should be subject to facing criminal charges for minimal amounts of this substance.”
Meanwhile, Murphy last month appointed an official to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission that will oversee the legal marijuana market.
Also on Thursday, the Senate approved legislation to revise “the restrictions that apply to ownership of or investment in a medical cannabis dispensary and other types of alternative treatment centers,” according to a summary. The vote was 32-8.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.