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NJ Lawmakers OK Legal Pot Under 6 Ounces, Just Needs Murphy's Signature

Garden State of mind
Garden State of mind Photo Credit: morguefile.com/growweedeasy

Doobie, doobie, done: New Jersey lawmakers were in a Garden State of mind when they approved an historic bill Thursday that sets rules and regulations for recreational pot sales. 

All it needs to become law is Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature and a mechanism to oversee ganjapreneurs.

If the governor signs off, 70% of the state sales tax revenue from pot purchases and a tax on growers in New Jersey will be directed to minority Garden State communities ravaged by drugs.

The State Legislature also approved a bill ending arrests for possessing less than six ounces of marijuana or selling up to an ounce.

“Nothing will have a greater impact that I’ve done in my career in the Legislature on all New Jerseyans,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union the sponsor of the pot legalization law. “It’s been a long journey.”

Legislators were having trouble coming up with a legal weed bill, so they tossed it to the people during last month's election.

New Jersey voters, in turn, favored an amendment to the state Constitution legalizing ganja by a 2-to-1 margin.

That sent lawmakers back to the table to hash out a bill that was socially and racially just.

The work is necessary. Otherwise, there would have been no way to regulate the industry -- or the justice system, which could have faced countless legal challenges for possession arrests -- once the amendment officially becomes law on Jan. 1.

The state Assembly on Thursday approved the measure by a 49-24 vote, with six abstentions. The state Senate followed with 23 thumbs up to 17 nays during virtual votes.

“This bill establishes measures to make the cannabis business diverse and equitable,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, who co-sponsored the bill’s Assembly version.

Both houses also approved decriminalizing pot, while knocking an arrest for possession of psilocybin mushrooms down to a disorderly persons offense instead of a third-degree crime.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, cited the “historic nature of this moment.”

“For years now, the better part of a decade, we have been advocating for legislation that would legalize cannabis and help repair the harms of the war on drugs,” Sinha said. “We are finally at a place where we can see the finish line."

While not perfect, Sinha said, the outcome is “a creature of compromise.”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) was among those legislators who opposed the bill, saying it would only fuel the black market.

“To be blunt, I had no choice but to vote no,” O’Scanlon said, blaming "over-taxation, over-regulation and over-complication -- Trenton’s typical prescription to … just about every issue."

“As we should have learned from other states, keeping the price of legal cannabis to no more than 20% above street price is essential to break the back of the illicit market," he said. "Taxes add costs that the illicit market doesn’t incur.

“We failed our patient community by not immediately eliminating the tax on medical cannabis as retail facilities get certified to sell to the public," O'Scanlon added.

He also called it a "gross injustice not to even provide a pilot medical cannabis home grow program. We all have repeatedly acknowledged that this is a medicine and that it is not cheap, yet we don’t provide this simple and cost effective solution to that problem."

Like other opponents, O'Scanlon said the taxes should benefit all state residents and "reduce our structural deficit. All ships must rise on the same tide, and this legislation clearly does not do that."

What happens next is up to Murphy.

If the governor signs the bill or doesn't act on it within 45 days, it becomes law. His only other option is to veto it.

If he signs the bill, Murphy must work with the Assembly to appoint members of a Cannabis Regulatory Commission that would oversee licensing of growers and sellers.

Establishing rules and awarding the necessary licenses and permits could take at least a year -- and that's a conservative estimate. Murphy is up for re-election next November.

The Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, said there should be “no more delays in the progress.”

He called the bill a “first step in restoring justice for communities that have been most devastated by the war on drugs across our state for decades. And while our work to repair the damage is far from over, today is a moment for celebration.

“For too long, our brothers and sisters have suffered at the hands of racist policies that criminalized Black and Latinx people as drugs were funneled into our communities,” Boyer noted. “Our loved ones have been thrown in prison at disproportionate numbers over soon-to-be-legalized cannabis and countless lives have been destroyed because of arcane laws.

“But New Jersey voters spoke out, and now I am hopeful that we are beginning a new era for our state.”

The bill provides the tools, Boyer said, to “right the wrongs of the past and offers a framework for Black and Latinx communities to successfully participate in the new cannabis markets as they open and grow.

“This legislation alone will not end New Jersey’s history of institutional racism,” he said, “but this is a critical step in our path forward.”

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