Last week, New Jersey residents overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. While the referendum represents a step in the right direction toward rectifying the racial injustice brought on by the nation’s drug wars, there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out before dispensaries can open.
The amendment that residents voted on does three things: it allows adults 21 and over to legally use cannabis for personal use, it allows the Cannabis Regulatory Commission – originally created to oversee medicinal marijuana – to also oversee the new personal market and it allows the cannabis products to be taxed at the state’s sales tax rate of 6.625 percent and at a max of two percent by municipalities that the products are sold in.
The amendment will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
Some things that are noticeably missing from the amendment are the rules, regulations and enforcement for cannabis use. These will all hopefully be addressed in the bill that was introduced to the state Senate on Nov. 5, called the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act.”
While nothing is official yet, multiple articles were published that address possession limits as well as the penalties of violating the law.
The bill was amended to decriminalize the possession of up to six ounces of weed, according to NJ Advance Media. This means that if someone is caught with six ounces or less, they won’t be penalized.
If someone not associated with legal dispensaries is caught distributing up to one ounce of weed, they’ll be fined for their first offense. Additional incidents would be recorded as fourth-degree offenses, meaning that they can face up to 18 months in prison and receive a fine of up to $10,000.
The repercussions of underage use or possession are also unclear. One possiblity is that minors won’t face any criminal penalties, but they would still be fined $250, according to Marijuana Moment. Another possibility is that those below the age restrictions could face arrest, according to NJ Advance Media.
Something else to note is that “passage of the amendment would not affect the state’s regulation of medical cannabis and hemp, and unregulated marijuana would remain illegal under the State’s laws,” according to the amendment. This means that anything purchased from a dispensary is legal, and everything else is still illegal.
Marijuana is also still illegal on college campuses. Many universities receive government funding, and therefore, they must comply with the drug rules and regulations, such as the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, set forth by the government to continue to be eligible for funding. Allowing the use of cannabis on campus jeopardizes that funding, as it's still illegal under the national government.
Criminal justice is another major component of the bill that is still in its beginning stages. There’s no word about what kind of laws will be put into place, but it’s important to note the passing of the referendum does not end marijuana-related arrests. The only way to stop arrests is through a decriminalization bill or if Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) administration orders a stoppage in marijuana-related arrests, according to NJ Advance Media.
Until lawmakers decide on the rules and regulations of legalizing cannabis, those in jail for marijuana-related offenses will remain there.
It’s unlikely that there will be much movement in terms of opening up dispensaries. To give a general idea of the timeline, in Massachusetts, it took approximately two years between voters approving the non-medical use of cannabis to the opening of the state’s first legal dispensaries.
While the amendment makes it legal to sell recreational marijuana in a retail setting, restrictions can still be imposed within municipalities. That means it’s up to towns to decide whether they will allow dispensaries to be opened within their borders.
The delay in opening dispensaries is also reliant on the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. The commission will consist of five members, only two have been appointed. Dianna Houenou, a former policy council to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, is chairing the commission. Jeff Brown, the assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Health, is the executive director.
To jumpstart the industry, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-N.J.), the prime sponsor of the bill, suggested that medicinal marijuana stores could start selling recreationally immediately after the bill becomes law, as long as they have enough in stock to fulfill the needs of the medical patients.
But this idea could create issues for medical marijuana users. The New Jersey medical marijuana industry is ill-equipped to deal with the influx of demand following legalization. Suppliers are already struggling to keep up with patients’ needs, and increasing the number of customers could overwhelm the system.
Some are also concerned about the use of the sales tax revenue. Senators and activists believe that the tax revenue should be used toward communities affected by the War on Drugs.
Scutari, Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-N.J.) and Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-N.J.) issued a statement that said, “all state revenue from legalized adult-use cannabis should be dedicated to impacted communities to reverse the harmful effects of systemic racism in our criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing to incarceration.”
Instead, the bill that was introduced would divert state tax revenue, license fees and license penalties to a new fund called the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Fund.
“Monies in this fund would be used for several purposes, including to pay for the operational costs of the commission and reimburse expenses incurred by any county or municipality for the training costs associated with the attendance and participation of a police officer in a Drug Recognition Expert program for detecting, identifying and apprehending drug-impaired motor vehicle operators,” according to the bill.
This means that some of the money will be used to reimburse police departments for training.
In essence, the referendum didn’t do much except to get marijuana legalization on the state legislature’s agenda. Lawmakers in support of legalization have tried in the past to pass laws legalizing weed, but they didn’t have enough support and decided to push it to the voters to decide.
Now that the public has come back with overwhelming support, they can start to move forward on creating the laws that will regulate cannabis use and the new industry.
The next time lawmakers are meeting to discuss the bill is this Thursday. The Assembly Appropriations Committee is meeting at 10:30 a.m., and the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee is meeting at 1 p.m. Both committees have the bill on the docket. The hearings and transcripts can be viewed online, and those who support the bill, oppose the bill or wish to submit testimony can also do so by following these steps:
Go to the New Jersey Legislature website: https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/Default.asp.
Scroll to the bottom and find the calendar which highlights the days where legislative activity is present.
Click on the day you’re interested in.
Scroll to the middle of the page and find where it has the "Legislative Schedule" and click on the respective session you’d like to submit testimony for. The page that the link takes you to should have all the instructions for submitting testimony.
If the session is allowing testimony or is open to hearing the public's thoughts, there will be a registration form link at the top of the page that you can click on and fill out.
Those who want to submit testimony should also email [email protected] in addition to filling out the form
People are also encouraged to contact their elected officials or the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill. To find your local representatives, you can go to the New Jersey Legislature website or follow this link.