New Jersey Tries Cannabis Reform Again

Daniel Ulloa

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Written by Daniel Ulloa

While New Jersey failed to pass comprehensive cannabis reform in March, there is talk that legislative leaders will try to pass it again after this year’s Assembly elections in the Lame Duck session.

Unlike other states, New Jersey’s legislature meets year-round and has elections for its Assembly this fall. 

Passing adult-use cannabis reform is a major issue in the state. Governor Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on the issue in 2017 when seeking office and promised he would pass it early in his administration. However, other issues took precedence. By March of this year, though there was a full effort to pass a comprehensive cannabis bill by all interested parties. But, Murphy, State President Sweeney Steve Sweeney, and Speaker Craig Coughlin (all Democrats), announced they were a few votes short the day they had scheduled the vote.

Efforts to pass reform were likely hurt by party-infighting between the progressive Murphy and the more moderate Sweeney and his South Jersey allies.

Since the comprehensive bill failed, a bill expanding New Jersey’s small medical marijuana program was passed which was badly needed. In a state of more than nine million people, there were about 17,000 patients at the beginning of the Murphy administration. In addition, a bill dealing with expunging the criminal records of those arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis will likely be passed and signed into law.

However, Murphy’s office is mum on what their strategy will be to pass adult-use cannabis reform.

“The Governor’s Office does not comment on pending legislation,” his press secretary said.

Hugh O’Beirne, President of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association (NJCIA) will be at the forefront of cannabis reform efforts. His predecessor as President of the NJCIA, Peter Cammarano, served as Murphy’s first Chief of Staff. The NJCIA’s members largely consist of businesses eager to enter the market.

“I’m optimistic that people are continuing to make good faith efforts,” O’Beirne said regarding its chances of passage. “There’s a desire to get adult use. I think there’s general desire to not give up the ship. We are very close.”

Many believe reform will open up a lucrative market in New Jersey that will create great opportunities for people. The state is especially interested in the tax revenue derived from cannabis products sold to fill gaps in the state’s budget, a perennial problem because New Jersey has an amendment to its constitution requiring it to have a balanced budget and not run a deficit.

One of the major issues that made some legislators reluctant to pass the bill in March was that it would expunge or erase the records of those arrested for possession of cannabis weighing up to five pounds.

O’Beirne said five pounds was thought to be far too much for legislators to agree to have their records expunged. However, the nature of the criminal code makes it so those with a smaller amount and those up to five pounds are lumped together. He added those who were likely traffickers would have multiple charges which would bar them from being eligible for expungement.

“They’re not over the top. It was a compassionate, intelligent and fair expungement provision. It was just misunderstood,” he said. O’Beirne added that because the original bill was designed in-part to foster social justice he expects to see social equity, impact zones, and licenses awarded that take into account labor issues, race, and minority status of owners written into the new bill.

Some criticize cannabis reform in the state for favoring Multi-State Operators over local, small businesses.

“Beyond making our bottom line, we want to do good for the communities that have been brutalized by the failed war on drugs,” O’Beirne insisted. “I think everyone realized we fought a war on drugs and lost. Isn’t it creepy to have a war on drugs, on a thing?”

In terms of the bill’s contents, it will likely allow independent cultivation businesses, more dispensaries, and consumption lounges in designated areas. The bill will likely allow for a variety of cannabis products to be sold including extracted products, raw flowers, edibles.

He added that edibles shouldn’t be made to look like gummy bears which are thought to be too appealing to children by Senate President Sweeney and other legislators. In addition, concerns regarding vaping safety need to be addressed.

Many activists have been advocating for home cultivation of cannabis because it would allow patients struggling to make ends meet to be able to grow their own. But because Murphy and Sweeney are opposed to it, it is not likely to be included in the final bill.

“I could see over time home grow being accepted,” O’Beirne said. “Hopefully it’s not far.”

One issue that could thwart reform is opposition from the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) which claimed victory when cannabis reform failed to pass. While in favor of decriminalization, they are vehemently opposed to adult-use legalization.

“Their facts are wrong,” said O’Beirne regarding SAM. “I don’t believe they've articulated and I don’t think what they proposed are sufficient. The best way is to ensure safety if regulated and not pretending it won’t be around.” He noted that in the states where adult-use cannabis market have opened, there is no regret for having done so.

“The streets won’t run with blood. Little actually changes,” he noted.

Some feel that the lingering effects of prohibition likely hurt reform.

“Even if they don’t have specific reasons, even if all arguments are in favor, it’s just something… we grew up with as if it was Satan incarnate!” O’Beirne said referring to the negative perception of cannabis due to prohibition.

Part of the issue was that New Jersey’s medical marijuana program was so small it did not help create broad support for further reform.

However this won’t deter O’Beirne and his allies in the ACLU, the NAACP, and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation who seek to “inaugurate the era of regulation to address the worst of the black market and prevent the deprivation of liberty and property based on their choices,” in his words.