By Patrick McKnight
New Jersey took another big step towards legalizing the recreational adult-use of cannabis last week, but legislators stopped short of taking the historic vote. After a breakthrough in negotiations over taxes and regulatory oversight between Governor Murphy and Senate President Sweeney in February, the scene appeared to be set for legalization. A vote was scheduled for Monday, March 25 but was postponed due to a lack of support. Leaders now hope to work out remaining sticking points and pass legislation before June.
As details of the legislation emerge some controversial provisions have given both supporters and critics pause. These wrinkles include the extent of expungements, public safety concerns, and set asides for minorities, women, and disabled-veteran business owners. These set asides are considered essential “social justice” provisions by many supporters but may have made public policy considerations more complicated for legislators sitting on the fence. Over 60 New Jersey municipalities have already voted to ban retail cannabis establishments in anticipation of statewide legalization.
In 2017 Governor Murphy ran on a promise to legalize cannabis within his first 100 days in office. Hopes for swift action ran high in early 2018 but stalled leading into a summer stand-off over the state budget. After a near-government shut down, tensions emerged between the State Legislators and the Governor’s Office. Momentum was further stymied into the fall due allegations of improprieties on the Governor’s campaign team.
New Jersey’s medical marijuana program continues to expand rapidly. A recent state Health Department report indicates the Garden State will need to quadruple the number of medical marijuana growers to meet increasing demand. There are currently 44,000 patients enrolled in the program, over double the 18,000 participating in January 2018. In early 2018 the Murphy Administration expanded the list of treatable conditions and streamlined regulations. These executive actions led to an immediate expansion in participation. The Health Department report suggests up to 180,000 patients could participate in the program by 2022.