New Jersey lawmakers just passed a comprehensive bill to pave the way for taxed and regulated cannabis sales, less than two weeks before their deadline.
The Garden State voted to legalize adult-use cannabis during last month’s election, but before legal sales can begin, lawmakers must create a regulatory framework. Legislators initially hoped to pass this bill within two weeks after Election Day, but debates over social equity and tax revenue forced lawmakers to cancel the vote and send the bill back to the drawing board.
The voter-approved legalization measure takes effect on January 1 of next year, but without this legislation in place, the state would be left in a legal gray zone where personal use is legal but sales are not. Fortunately, lawmakers finally ironed out their disagreements and passed the regulation bill, officially known as A-21, this week. The state Senate approved the bill by a narrow 23-17 margin, while the Assembly passed it with a more comfortable 49-24 vote.
The new bill directs 70 percent of all cannabis sales tax revenue to fund programs for “impact zones,” or communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition laws. These programs would offer legal aid, workforce training, healthcare, and other services to residents of these zones. The state will also impose “social equity excise taxes” on licensed weed cultivators, 100 percent of which will be directed to aid impact zones.
The remaining 30 percent of tax revenue will go to fund the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will regulate the state's medical and adult-use weed industries. This agency still needs to draft the actual regulations covering weed sales and licensing, though — which means that legal sales will not be able to start for another 6 to 12 months.
A-21 imposes a cap of 37 licensed cannabis facilities for the first two years of operation, and will allow municipalities to prohibit weed businesses on their home turf. Towns that opt-in to the legal weed industry are allowed to collect an additional 2 percent tax on weed sales, however. The bill also creates business incentives to help minorities, women, and disabled veterans get involved in the new industry.
"With legalization comes an unprecedented opportunity for residents to clean the slate with expungement provisions and for communities to grow their economic base with businesses," said Assemblyman Jamel Holley to Patch.
But despite lawmakers' efforts to include social equity measures in the legislation, some advocates are disappointed with the final bill. The ACLU of New Jersey applauded lawmakers' decision to devote 70 percent of tax revenue to reparations, but added that more work needs to be done to “address the injustices of cannabis prohibition and build an inclusive industry at every level.” A-21 also allows businesses to force their employees to submit to pre-employment, regular, or random drug screening to ensure that they are abstaining from weed.
In addition to the adult-use regulation bill, lawmakers have also sent two additional drug reform measures to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk. The first of these bills would completely decriminalize the possession of up to 6 oz. of weed. The voter-approved adult-use measure only legalizes the possession of up to one ounce of weed, and anyone caught with more than that amount could still be in trouble with the law. This bill, which also provides “virtual” expungements of former cannabis convictions, passed the Assembly with a 64-12 vote and the Senate by 31-2.
Legislators also approved a third piece of legislation to reduce the criminal penalties for psilocybin possession. Under this bill, the criminal charge for possessing up to 1 oz. of psilocybin mushrooms would be reduced to a disorderly persons offense, which is basically a misdemeanor-level charge punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Under current law, anyone caught with even a single shroom could face three to five years in jail and up to $15,000 in fines. This bill passed the Senate with a 22-15 vote, and the Assembly by a 51-22 margin.
All three of these bills still need Governor Murphy's signature before they can become law. Murphy has long been an advocate of cannabis reform, though, and he actually struggled to get the state legislature to legalize weed as soon as he took office back in 2018. It ended up taking three years longer than the governor planned, but the Garden State will finally be able to start planting legal weed next year.