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During Phil Murphy’s successful campaign to succeed stalwart prohibitionist Chris Christie as governor of New Jersey, Murphy made numerous promises to legalize recreational cannabis in the Garden State this year. Although a majority of the state's voters are in favor of legal weed, the state legislature has remained reticent, delaying debates over marijuana legalization until the state's budget bill can be sorted out.
While the governor pushes for full recreational legalization, state lawmakers are still struggling to get a handle on the state's medical cannabis program. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but Christie delayed the rollout of the program and added several layers of restrictions that made it extremely tough for patients to get access to their medicine. As soon as he took office, Murphy expanded the program, adding several new qualifying conditions, increasing the quantity of cannabis patients are allowed to possess, and allowing any licensed doctor to recommend the drug.
Since the end of March, an additional 5,000 patients have enrolled in the state's MMJ program, but there are only six businesses currently licensed to cultivate and dispense medical cannabis in the state, creating concerns over whether there will be enough supply to meet the demand. For this reason, many state legislators are more concerned about fixing the state's current medical cannabis program than they are about drafting a new recreational cannabis law.
Last month, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari proposed a controversial idea, combining the recreational cannabis bill with a second piece of legislation that would further expand the state's medical cannabis program. State Sen. Joseph Vitale, author of the medical cannabis bill, is opposed to recreational legalization, however, and protested the idea of his bill being combined with adult-use regulations.
Regardless of whether the bills are combined or not, Sen. Scutari said that he believes there is little chance that legislators will broach the topic before this weekend's state budget deadline, but offered hope that the bill could be worked out later in the summer. Scutari told NJ Advance Media that he plans to set up a “marijuana oversight commission” to oversee both the recreational and medical markets, but other lawmakers have argued that the proposal for the commission is unworkable in its present form.
The state's cannabis industry has had mixed reactions to the announced delays. Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said that he was still optimistic that legislators will still legalize pot this summer. "We're trying to ensure cannabis gets a thoughtful hearing discussion that's not rushed," he said to NJ Advance Media. New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association president Hugh O'Beirne disagreed strongly however, likening the current delay to “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
“We're basically losing a tremendous opportunity for the industry in New Jersey and for the citizens of New Jersey by delaying or confusing it, and I don't understand why,” O'Beirne added.