Propelled by the momentum of an overwhelming win on Election Day, the sponsors of the bill creating the legal marijuana market rushed to introduce it three days later on the evening of Nov. 6, with the hopes of it passing the full Legislature 10 days later.
But on Thursday, the state Senate and Assembly committees delayed scheduled hearings and a vote on the bill (S21/A21) after advocates and some lawmakers criticized the legislation for failing to direct tax revenue to communities harmed by the drug war. On Thursday evening, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said he remains open to an additional tax on the marijuana industry and to earmarking revenue for community programs.
Currently, there is no vote planned on the bill for Nov. 16, Scutari said, which was the initial deadline set by Scutari and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. But negotiations continue behind-the-scenes, according to sources inside the Legislature, the Murphy administration, the cannabis industry and social advocacy leaders.
Despite the delay, Scutari said he remains hopeful the bill can pass before the ballot question results take effect as a constitutional amendment on Jan. 1, 2021.
“I don’t think it’s going to be done next week. But it will get done by the end of the year,” Scutari told NJ Advance Media. “But I think we took an important first step Monday by getting (the bill) out of committee.”
“We are getting there,” Scutari added.
“Negotiations are ongoing,” Kevin McArdle, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said.
And Cannabis attorney Bill Caruso, who also co-founded New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform, agreed the delay is merely temporary.
“Although there is still urgency to pass legislation prior to the end of the year, the Legislature made the right move to pause today to allow more time to work through any remaining issues with the legislation and hopefully address those concerns in the coming days,” Caruso said Thursday night.
Some advocates had campaigned on legalizing marijuana as means to right the wrongs of the drug war — both by ending arrests and creating a new revenue source to boost programs in minority communities. Along with a contingent of lawmakers, they said they wanted to see the bill specifically address those issues and potentially establish a new tax on cannabis cultivators to get more funds from the marijuana industry than the 6.625% sales tax alone.
On Monday, testimony centered on those concerns when the bill sped through a first round of committee hearings in the Senate and Assembly.
The bill has changed little from its original version last year, when it failed to garner enough Senate votes to pass. That led to the decision to let voters choose whether adults 21 and old may buy marijuana regulated by the state.
But some lawmakers have made their displeasure known privately with the bill, one source said.
“There is intense pushback from the Legislative Black Caucus for a number of reasons,” a legislative source with knowledge of the negotiations said. Those include wanting “more diversity in the language and where the revenue will be placed.”
The discussions center around the bill committing tax revenue to programs in communities disadvantaged by the drug war, the legislative source said. Currently, the bill directs sales tax revenue to the regulatory commission. But so far, revenue is only earmarked for training police officers on how to become Drug Recognition Experts, and into the state’s general fund.
Some legislators also want to see language in the bill on how the state chooses license-holders in this nascent industry. Some parts of the current bill “really handicap the expansion of more minorities getting licenses,” the source said.
On Monday, Coughlin issued a statement of support for the additional tax, calling it a “user’s fee.” Under the constitutional amendment voters approved on Nov. 3, the only taxes allowed on cannabis consumers are the state sales tax and a 2% local tax.
Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said he has been promoting an amendment that would end the practice of awarding a limited number of licenses, which has crippled the medical marijuana program, leading to high prices and short supplies.
Rudder said cannabis entrepreneurs should be able to meet the state and local criteria for opening a business without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultants and other experts to prove to the Health Department they are a worthy pick.
“This is an opportunity to use our ’2020′ vision and look at this with new eyes,” Rudder said. “There are only six new licenses during the last three years and that is unacceptable. That is the fault of the process, and the lawsuits. One lawsuit can shut down an entire industry.”
On Thursday, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday did move forward with legislation that would decriminalize possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana, as well as the sale of a small amount. The full Senate and Assembly have scheduled votes on the measure for Monday.