When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy took office this January, he promised to bring legal weed to the Garden State within his first 100 days in office. The state Legislature has been slow to embrace the prospect of legal weed, causing the governor to miss his goal, but state Senate President Steve Sweeney now believes that lawmakers are finally ready to legalize pot by September.
There are currently two cannabis bills up for debate in the state Legislature; one would expand the state's restrictive medical cannabis program, while the other would create a taxed and regulated adult use cannabis market. Support for the medical cannabis bill is strong among all of the state's lawmakers, but a number of conservative Republicans still oppose recreational legalization.
Sweeney told POLITICO that he was “confident” that he and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin will be able to drum up enough support to pass both bills by the end of next month. “There’s some people that will never support it and there are some people who are just hedging their bets because there’s not a bill to look at,” Sweeney said, but added that he expects that some lawmakers who previously opposed the bills are now ready to come onboard. “Don’t be surprised when people who say they were against it vote for it.”
Although Sweeney may have support for legalization, the bills themselves have not been finalized, and some lawmakers' support may be contingent on the fine details. “We’re going to need to work with [Republicans] to pass it,” he explained. “I can’t get anyone to make a commitment on something that they have no idea what it looks like, nor would I expect them to make the commitment.”
One issue that is still being debated is whether to include provisions to atone for the social injustices caused by years of disproportionately-enforced cannabis prohibition. Several members of the state Assembly have said that they will only support the bill if it includes a means for former pot offenders to clear their criminal records. Sweeney said that lawmakers have yet to decide whether to include this provision, or how the expungement process would work if it were included.
Gov. Murphy's proposed sales tax rate of 25% is also raising concern among lawmakers. “I don’t want [the tax rate] to be 25 percent, because then you’re just going to keep the black market alive,” Sweeney told POLITICO. “If you tax it too high, you incentivize people to use the black market because you’ve raised the price too high.”
Despite the delays, legalization seems inevitable for the Garden State, and several state officials have been preparing for this eventuality. Last month, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that his office would temporarily stop prosecuting low-level cannabis offenses until September. If the bill passes, as Sweeney expects it will, Grewal's policy will have effectively ended cannabis prohibition in the state.
New Jersey has also been working on improving its medical cannabis program. Within his first week in office, Gov. Murphy pushed for an expansion of the highly limited program enacted under the Christie administration. Throughout the first half of 2018, the state Department of Health expanded the number of qualifying conditions for the program, allowing over 10,000 new patients to sign up by July. The state's six existing dispensaries are struggling to keep up with this increased demand, however, increasing the pressure on lawmakers to push the two cannabis reform bills through the Legislature.