New Jersey Is Pushing for Major Cannabis Reform in Light of Legalization Failure
Although New Jersey's failed to pass adult-use laws, Garden State lawmakers are advancing bills to decriminalize pot, expunge weed convictions, and expand the state's medical cannabis program.
Published on May 21, 2019

Up until last March, hopes ran high that lawmakers would finally make good on Governor Phil Murphy's promise to bring legal weed to the Garden State before the year's end. Two months later, the adult-use bill is now dead in the water, crushed by opposition from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Last week, State Senate President Steve Sweeney announced that his chamber will not “pursue the legalization of adult-use marijuana at this time,” Marijuana Moment reports.

The question of whether to legalize adult-use now moves to the people of New Jersey, who will vote on the issue on the 2020 election ballot. In the meantime, lawmakers are still trying to pass more limited cannabis reform measures.

The first (and least controversial) of these bills would expand the state's medical marijuana program. This bill would allow each registered patient to purchase up to three ounces of medical cannabis per month, which is up from the current limit of two ounces. It would also legalize edibles for medical use. Lastly, the bill would also phase out the sales tax on medical marijuana products by 2025.

Unlike the adult-use bill, the medical marijuana expansion proposal has strong bipartisan support. State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, sponsor of the legislation, told App that “there are no deal-killers in this bill.” The measure cleared two key state Senate committees this Monday, and is expected to quickly pass both chambers of the Legislature. O'Scanlon said that although the bill is “not perfect… this is still light years ahead of our present program, and it’s at a time when it’s exactly appropriate.”

Last week, State Assembly members introduced a more comprehensive reform bill that would simultaneously decriminalize cannabis possession and allow for the expungement of low-level marijuana crimes. It was stopped in its tracks by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but legislators quickly re-introduced the legislation as two separate bills

On Monday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would make the possession of up to two ounces of pot a civil citation, punishable by a $50 fine, rather than a criminal offense. Other pot-related crimes would remain criminal offenses punishable by jail time, but penalties for these crimes would be reduced.

The Appropriations Committee also approved a separate measure that would allow any New Jersey resident with a prior conviction for using, possessing, or distributing marijuana to petition to have their criminal records cleared. The bill won't automatically clear individuals' records, but it will create an electronic filing system to make the process easier. Individuals who are currently waiting to be tried for possessing two ounces or less could also have their cases dismissed outright.

“This is high-impact,” State Assemblyman Jamel Holley, a sponsor of the expungement bill, told New Jersey On-Line. “This is our way to right the wrongs of the past for individuals… This is just the first step of many legislative bills that will impact people of color.”

A similar expungement bill is also advancing through the State Senate, although it does not currently include a provision for decriminalization. State Sen. Joe Vitale said that the bill's supporters intend to add this provision to the bill before it comes up for a floor vote later this week.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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