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How's it coming, New Jersey? Vote on recreational marijuana delayed again

New Jersey, a state which currently has a working and growing medical marijuana program, has been inching toward recreational marijuana legalization and a regulated and taxed market for months. However, the goalposts keep moving as proponents wrangle with holdouts in the New Jersey House. A planned vote at the end of October now looks unlikely according to top Democrats who are now calling on Gov. Phil Murphy for reinforcement in gaining the votes needed to pass the measure.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has been in place since 2010. If the legislature does legalize the use of marijuana by all adults, then New Jersey will be joining nine others across the country which have legalized recreational marijuana.

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If the new bill passes, New Jersey will be the first state in the country to create a regulated marijuana market through legislation. Vermont decriminalized marijuana via legislation. However, the measure did not create a regulated market.

Experts estimate the Garden State’s combined medical and recreational cannabis market will be worth $1 billion a  year, will create thousands of jobs. It is expected to bring in millions in tax revenue.

Aside from generating tax revenue, the state stands to save $130 million a year on law enforcement and criminal justice.

#MedicalMarijuana treats over 30K patients in New Jersey- and growing fast.We received 146 apps for more ATCs! We will look for:✔️Diversity of applicants✔️Ability to ramp up production responsibly✔️Good professional track records to run ATCs that meet patients’ needs

— Shereef Elnahal, MD (@ShereefElnahal) September 5, 2018


Meanwhile, New Jersey’s medical marijuana program grows

While New Jersey lawmakers continue to haggle over the details of the legalization bill, the state’s medical marijuana program, which has recently undergone expansion, has seen a groundswell of new patients and doctors.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana began back in 2010. The outgoing governor at the time, Jon Corzine signed the bill on his final day in office. Corzine was succeeded by Chris Christie, a staunch and vocal prohibitionist. Although Christie did his best to restrict and stunt the program while in office, the state granted six vertically integrated medical marijuana licenses.

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With Christie on his way out, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy made legalization a major plank in his platform. Murphy won the day and immediately began working with lawmakers such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Nicholas Scutari on putting together recreational marijuana legislation. Murphy’s original goal was to have legislation signed by the end of the summer.  

Shortly after taking office, Murphy’s administration expanded the list of medical conditions which qualify residents for a medical marijuana card, adding anxiety, migraines, two types of chronic pain, and Tourette’s Syndrome to the list.

Scutari was instrumental in developing expansion plans before Murphy even took office. Since the measure was signed, an estimated 10,000 additional residents have joined the medical marijuana program which has ballooned from 17,000 to 34,000 since Murphy took office in January. The majority of the patients who have signed up since January, have one of the five new medical conditions.

Approximately 300 more doctors have also joined the program bring the total up to about 800 and greatly reducing the wait time to get an ID card to an average of just two weeks. Fees have been reduced. There are also 1,345 caregivers in the state.

On a down note, dozens of suburban New Jersey towns have banned medical marijuana dispensaries.

Within the past few days, the state also implemented a new measure which allows dispensaries to post their prices — a move which is expected to lower prices. Medical marijuana can cost as much as $500 per ounce in New Jersey.

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To meet the increasing demand for the drug, the Department of Health announced the availability of six additional vertically integrated licenses. By September, the agency had received more than 140 applications. Recently, the Department of Health acknowledged it would miss its self-imposed November 1 deadline for reviewing the applications.

Further expansion of the medical marijuana program is being planned. For example, the Health Department is exploring the idea of adding opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition. Under current guidelines, patients are only eligible for a medical marijuana card if they became addicted to opioids as a result of treating chronic pain from a musculoskeletal disorder. If the new measure is approved, this restriction will be eliminated.

New Jersey Department of Health

What’s in the New Jersey recreational marijuana bill

The latest version of the 135-page proposal, dated October 4, addresses taxes, regulations, and the eligibility requirements of receiving a license to operate a marijuana business in the state.

The proposed legislation dovetails with the state’s existing medical marijuana program. As currently written, the bill would impose a statewide 12 percent tax on marijuana sales. Additionally, local municipal governments will be allowed to add 2 percent, bringing it up to a healthy 14 percent.

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Social issues have always been Murphy's top priority. African-Americans have historically been arrested at much higher rates than whites. Aside from laying the foundation for an adult-use cannabis market, the bill also addresses racial inequities. For instance, the measure calls for 25 percent of marijuana business licenses to be reserved for residents of so-called "impact zones" determined by poverty rates and other factors. Finally, the bill also calls for the expungement of all past marijuana convictions.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program has made incredible strides in expanding access and becoming a compassionate, consumer-friendly service for patients. This is only the beginning. https://t.co/OFS3sO4NuF

— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) October 22, 2018


One sticking point in the bill: Taxes

After months of debate, lawmakers gathered two weeks ago to preview the legislation and various deliberate proposals. While most of the state’s Democrats are in favor of legalization, there are some holdouts such as Democratic state senator Ron Rice, a former Newark police officer who has been in the state Senate for more than 30 years.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he called on Murphy to provide support in helping the Senate get the 21 necessary votes needed to pass the bill.  Sweeney spoke with Murphy before the governor’s trip to Germany and Israel last week on a trade mission. Murphy said last Friday that he has not yet received a list of holdout Senators, but that he would be happy to do what he can to help. Sweeney promptly sent a list of holdouts to the governor on Monday. Murphy is scheduled to return to New Jersey next Wednesday.

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Although the exact sticking points haven’t been made public, it’s believed that taxes are one of the issues holding up a vote. Governor Phil Murphy has made it clear that he feels the tax rates, which are among the lowest in the country, are too low. At one point Murphy has called for a 25 percent tax rate. It’s unlikely, however, that Murphy would veto the bill over the tax rate.

Both the Senate and the Assembly must pass the bill. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has not said whether or not the Assembly currently has the 41 votes it needs for the bill to pass, but has expressed his confidence that the votes will be there when the time comes to vote on the legislation.

It’s not clear yet when a vote will take place, but most stakeholders are confident that New Jersey lawmakers will come to an agreement and New Jersey will become the ninth state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.


*Header Image by Phil Murphy for Governor

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