After months of debate over the nuances of marijuana legalization legislation, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and leaders in the Legislature have reached a broad agreement.
In a press release on March 12, 2019, the governor and fellow Democrats Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano announced the agreement and said that text of a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use will be released “in the coming days.”
That's a welcome development for advocates, who had the benefit of a pro-legalization governor but worried that his concerns about aspects of legalization such as the tax rates and regulatory structures might derail the reform effort.
“Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system,” Murphy said. “After months of hard work and thoughtful negotiations, I'm thrilled to announce an agreement with my partners in the Legislature on the broad outlines of adult-use marijuana legislation.”
I’m thrilled to announce an agreement with my partners in the Legislature – @NJSenatePres, @SpeakerCoughlin, @SenatorScutari and @AnnetteQuijano – on the broad outlines of legislation to legalize adult-use marijuana.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 12, 2019
“I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes,” he said.
While Murphy initially called for a much steeper tax rate than his counterparts in the legislature, a compromise was reached to tax cannabis by weight, rather than by price. Under the agreement, there will be a $42 per ounce excise tax as well as additional local taxes for municipalities that opt to allow manufacturers, wholesalers, or retailers.
In his annual budget proposal in early March 2019, the governor estimated that the state would collect $60 million in marijuana tax revenue for the 2020 fiscal year.
The agreement today on legalizing adult-use marijuana:
• Reduces disparities in our criminal justice system.
• Establishes an industry that brings opportunity to all communities
• Ensures a safe product
• Allows law enforcement to focus resources on serious crimes
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 12, 2019
“This plan will allow for the adult use of cannabis in a responsible way,” Sweeney said of the new deal. “It will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market so that it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been since the end of Prohibition. This plan will also advance important social justice reforms to help reverse the discriminatory impact that drug laws have had on diverse communities.”
Social equity will be a major feature of the legalization bill, the lawmakers emphasized. The legislation will establish a system to expedite the clearing of records for prior low-level cannabis convictions and also create a “virtual expungement process” that would prevent marijuana offenses from affecting education, housing, and occupational licensing.
“As much as we would want this to be automatic, it is functionally not possible,” Murphy said in response to questions about expungements at a press conference on unrelated gun issues on March 12, 2019. “You have an affirmative action an individual has to take, or in the absence of that a virtual expungement, meaning until that person takes that action, that crime cannot impair their ability — just as race, gender, religion cannot impair your ability — to get a job, to get an education, to get a license, et cetera.
“It will address enormous social injustice in our system. And while that appears to be under the justice category, it has enormous implications for both the individuals who are finally freed from this prior charge but also for the rest of us. The economic impact, the societal impact, not just on those individuals, but on the rest of us, is potentially enormous.”
The joint announcement from Murphy and lawmakers said that “there are a number of provisions that aim to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for minority and women-owned business enterprises, low- and middle-income individuals, and disadvantaged communities across the state.”
“The agreement reached to legalize adult-use cannabis is the result of incredibly hard work by many people over many months,” Coughlin said. “Getting to this point wasn't easy. We talked and we negotiated in good faith, but most importantly, we listened.
“I want to thank Gov. Murphy and Senate President Sweeney for their tireless efforts and willingness to compromise so we could put forth the most responsible legislation possible. I believe this new, regulated industry will help boost our economy, but I'm particularly proud of the critical social justice components included in the bill.”
The statement from Murphy and the lawmakers doesn't mention whether allowing people to grow their own marijuana at home is part of the deal.
Under the agreement, the state's legal marijuana program would be regulated by a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Three of the members will be appointed by the governor without being subject to Senate confirmation, and two would be recommended by Sweeney and Coughlin.
“The prohibition on marijuana has long been a failed policy,” Scutari said. “This plan will bring an end to the adverse effects our outdated drug laws have had on the residents of our state.”
“As a regulated product legalized marijuana will be safe and controlled,” he said. “It is time to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey and this is a well crafted legal reform that will advance social policy in a fair and effective way.”
More details and actual legislative language are still to come, but the announcement offers the clearest look yet at how New Jersey's legal cannabis system could take shape.
“This was not easy. We're standing up an entire new industry, so not surprisingly, it took time,” Murphy said at the press conference. “I got there via the notion that in the yawning gaps of social injustice in our state, particularly among peoples who are incarcerated across racial lines.”
Coughlin predicted that a vote on a legalization bill could come on March 25.
— David Cruz (@CruzNJTV) March 11, 2019
Murphy, meanwhile, predicted that legal cannabis sales would be an “early next year reality.” He said it's “too early for me to tell” whether there's enough support to pass legalization in either chamber, but “I'm all in to help them get this over the goal line.
“We have to get the votes now. The Senate president, the speaker, myself, their teams — we have to collectively get the votes we need both in the Senate and the Assembly,” he said. “We'll be working on this jointly.”
The news of a deal in New Jersey comes one day after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of neighboring New York announced that he is not optimistic about the chances of including marijuana legalization in his state's annual budget this year, as he initially proposed. He and lawmakers are saying that they still plan to pursue the issue in separate legislation, however.