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New Jersey Lawmakers Begin Deliberations on Legal Cannabis

Today, the Garden State’s Assembly Oversight Committee is holding its first hearing on recreational pot, where legalization advocates will face off with skeptical politicians.

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Newly-elected New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has promised to legalize recreational cannabis within his first 100 days of office, but skeptics remain doubtful that such a herculean task can be accomplished so quickly. In his first week of office, Murphy did initiate plans to enhance the state's medical marijuana program, but before this week, legislators had not yet begun to discuss the topic of recreational legalization.

Today, the state Assembly Oversight Committee is holding its first hearing on recreational pot, where advocates for legalization will face off with lawmakers who want to limit or even prevent the Garden State from legalizing cannabis. "I'm going to let the committee do its work and I'm going to look at what they've done," Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said to the Associated Press. "Certainly on my own I'll start to look at the issue and do what we can to get it right."

Democratic State Senator Nicholas Scutari, chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill that would allow adults aged 21 or older to legally purchase and possess limited quantities of cannabis or grow up to six plants themselves. The bill would also set up a licensed retail sales market, governed by a newly-minted Division of Marijuana Enforcement. The sales tax would begin at 7%, to encourage early participation, and rise to 25% within five years.

Lawmakers' support for legalization seems mixed, with several Democrats undecided on the issue, and most Republicans opposing legalization outright. Democratic State Senator Ron Rice is arguing that the state should decriminalize cannabis instead of opting for full legalization. Republican Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, on the other hand, has spoken out against legalization, making claims that legal weed has brought increases in crime, traffic fatalities, and homelessness to Colorado.

Even though the Assembly's support for the bill is uncertain, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano is planning to propose three bills today that all hinge on the success of legal weed in the state. The first of these bills would allow anyone with previous cannabis convictions a chance to have their criminal records cleared, much like Proposition 64 allows in California.

"If we are going to allow the possession and use of marijuana in this state, then it is incumbent upon us to clear the records of all those who have been found guilty in the past," Quijano said to NJ Advance Media. "Clearing the records of these individuals will allow them to access federal higher education loans, affordable housing programs, and greater employment opportunities."

Quijano's second bill would establish a development program that allows qualifying canna-businesses to claim credits against their gross income tax liability, which would offset some of the tax burdens imposed by the federal prohibition of cannabis. The third bill would establish an advisory board tasked with re-training drug-sniffing dogs if cannabis were to become legal.

While the debate over legalization blazes on, a number of new startup businesses are already getting involved in New Jersey's impending cannabis industry. Starting a business that directly handles non-medical cannabis will remain illegal in the Garden State until full legalization is enacted, but a number of individuals have started ancillary canna-businesses providing products ranging from child-proof weed baggies to purses with odor-proof hidden stash pockets. One entrepreneur has even started plans for a cannabis delivery service, even though the state Assembly has not even broached the topic of legalizing such a service.