Last year was big for cannabis in New Jersey, though not nearly as big as it could have been.
The state saw a substantial increase in the size of the medical marijuana program, both in terms of patients and potentially the number of dispensaries. But New Jersey still missed out on recreational marijuana, when this time last year legalization seemed a real possibility.
The next several weeks will be revelatory for the future of legal weed in the state. If lawmakers can sit down and hash out the finer details of legalization, it’s possible that Gov. Phil Murphycould sign a bill by February.
But if the chasm between the governor and legislative leaders on marijuana keeps growing and the “yes” votes don’t materialize, lawmakers could go deep into the year without legalizing weed. So where does New Jersey now stand on legal weed?
From the time Murphy took office in January of 2018, the state seemed on the cusp on legalization. The governor had promised it in his campaign, his election gave Democrats control of all branches of state government, and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, introduced a bill early last year to legalize the possession and personal use of marijuana, as well as create a regulated market.
As lawmakers and lobbyists took interest, different visions of legal weed began to emerge. Was it about social justice? Was it a cash cow? How quickly could it get done?
Then came the delays. The budget got in the way in June and lawmakers didn’t seriously return to legalization until the fall.
By late November there was enough agreement on legal weed for the Scutari bill — heavily amended throughout the year — to pass legislative committees in both the state Senate and the Assembly. All it needed then was approval in the full chambers of the state Legislature and a signature from the governor.
But there were still a couple of hang-ups. The governor and legislative leaders couldn’t agree on how much tax to charge or on how to regulate the market, so the bill was never heard in the full legislature last year.
So, that’s where lawmakers pick up on legal weed in 2019.
It’s no secret one of the largest sticking points in the negotiations over the marijuana legalization bill is who controls the potentially multi-billion-dollar market.
The bill that passed the Senate and Assembly committees creates the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which would control every aspect of the cannabis market — from the medical program run by the Department of Health, to the licensing of providers and enforcement of rules.
“The latest version of the bill isn’t acceptable to the administration,” said a source inside the Murphy administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Despite the governor’s office shooting down the latest iteration of the commission, Scutari wrote an op-ed on NJ.com on Wednesday in favor of the five-person body, comparing it to the casino commission introduced in the state decades ago.
“Much like the casino industry of the 1970s, the new marijuana industry must be given unique and detailed attention,” Scutari wrote. “To promote public trust, private investment and market stability, we need to create a system of accountability, adaptability and full transparency.”