Lawmakers push ahead legalization amid calls for higher taxes, social justice

By Published On: November 10, 2020Categories: News

Lawmakers in an Assembly and Senate committee on Monday both approved a measure that would decriminalize possession and distribution of cannabis, and another that would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

Elected officials have begun to draw their own lines in the sand with some long-familiar matters, like employer protections and the taxation rate, which helped scuttle efforts in 2018 and 2019 to pass legislation to legalize cannabis.

That prompted the top lawmaker behind cannabis legalization – Senator Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District – to hedge Monday that the bill might not be ready in time for the Senate and Assembly full-floor voting sessions in a week.

There would likely be an array of amendments, all technical in nature, according to Scutari.

“I’m open to making it better,” he said on Monday.

The 216-page “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act” was approved by both the Assembly and Senate committees, and calls for a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission to regulate and tax the state’s marijuana industry.

As part of the referendum, which voters on Nov. 3 overwhelmingly approved by a two to one margin, Murphy has to sign a bill legalizing and opening up the market.

It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday afternoon, along with Senate Bill 2535 – that would decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of cannabis and distribution of up to one ounce. First offenses would be met with a warning and a $25 fine for any following offenses.

S2535 would seal records of marijuana possession and distribution, and any arrests, charges or convictions that took place prior to the conviction date would be dropped.

The proposed legalization bill – Senate Bill 21 – would tax cannabis transactions at the 6.625% state sales tax, and allow municipalities to levy a 2% excise tax.

But Coughlin said he wants an “additional user fee” as part of the enabling legislation, that could help to reduce the financial burden on New Jersey’s taxpayers and specifically on its urban communities.”

Gov. Phil Murphy agreed to an extent, saying on Twitter that the added excise tax could be used by local towns and cities to raise funds “to invest in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.”

He declined to comment when pressed on it further during an afternoon hearing in Trenton.

Scutari warned against too high of a tax rate on Monday, saying that the goal has been to push the black market out of business.

“If we overprice the product before it’s sold, no one will buy it legally. Some will, but many people will continue to buy it from their local drug dealer,” Scutari said.

Most of the tax revenue from cannabis sales goes towards reimbursing local police departments for training their officers to recognize drivers under the influence of marijuana – something panned by lawmakers and activists.

The bill calls for 15% of marijuana business licenses to go towards people of color, and another 15% towards women and minorities.

“There needs to be defining equity for people directly impacted by the war on drugs in a real way,” said Isis Dawson, a managing partner at the cannabis group MJM Strategy.

Applications are prioritized for businesses based out of communities with some of the state’s high crime and jobless rates.

“I cannot imagine that the governor would sign off on legislation that doesn’t include a reinvestment back into those communities,” Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-22nd District, who is sponsoring the lower-house version, said on Monday.

He argued that funds should be directed not into the state’s general fund, but rather, services – like job training, education and health care – to benefit the state’s neediest residents which have felt the brunt of the impact from the war on drugs.

That drew the agreement of Scutari, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-29th District, who sponsored the decriminalization bill, and contended that a higher tax rate would only serve to hamper any racial equity.

“We still have to look at the realities of how this new frontier and economic market must be inclusive to the person who was damaged by the disproportionate unfair policies and create concrete policies that will take the individual from the street corner to the store fronts,” Ruiz said.

Tara Sargente, executive director at the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, cautioned that the state’s existing licensing model overlooks mom and pop, Main Street businesses and instead favors well-financed, typically out-of-state and already established businesses.

Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo, D-36th District, sparred with Scutari over what he said were protections for workers from losing their jobs while off the clock, and liability protections for employers – something which Scutari mostly denied.

And wherever the language may have been lacking, the bill still grants the CRC to come up with those rules, Scutari noted.

“There are going to be employees, are they protected, are they going to lose their job if they are working for a utility company and they get tested after a weekend” using cannabis, Sarlo asked of Scutari. “You’re not impaired or high but it’s in your system. You violated that drug policy… and are subjected to being dismissed from that employer.”

Workers in regulated industries, like those at utility companies, operators of heavy machinery, and holders of a commercial driver’s license, could be forced out of using a legal product, Sarlo warned.

“That operator is, had a great night’s sleep, he’s not impaired, he’s not high, it’s in his system. But there’s no way to say when he… inhaled it. It could have been two weeks ago in his backyard. If there was an accident that occurred, blew up a house, killed somebody, who is liable?”

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