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New Jersey Governor Plugs Legal Cannabis for Post-Pandemic Recovery

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PHOTO Freeman LaFleur

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New Jersey Governor Plugs Legal Cannabis for Post-Pandemic Recovery

As New Jersey awaits a November ballot initiative on legalization, the state’s governor invoked cannabis as a potential key to post-pandemic economic recovery, as well as an imperative for racial justice. But even if the vote passes, deadlock in the statehouse could still be an obstacle to implementation.

In a seemingly offhand comment winning much local media attention, New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy plugged legal cannabis as a boost to the state’s struggling economy, hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The words came in an exchange on the July 14 broadcast of the Jim Kerr Rock & Roll Morning Show on New York’s Q104.3 classic rock radio station. Murphy was clearly trying hard to be chipper amid a gloomy economic scenario.

“We still need federal cash assistance direct into the state,” Murphy said. “That’s something that I hope that Congress will get to, sooner than later, that the president will sign. That’s another big slug that we need. We’ll look at revenues that we can potentially raise on our own…” 

At that point, co-host Shelli Sonstein broke in, taunting in a sing-song voice over the governor’s sober intonation: “Mary-juanaaa….” 

Murphy didn’t skip a beat. “Listen, as you probably know, I’ve been on that from day one,” he said. “The Legislature hasn’t been able to get there yet, but absolutely. That to me is an incredibly smart thing to do.” 

He briefly sounded semi-apologetic: “We’re not inventing marijuana, it exists.” But he quickly followed up: “It’s got a huge social justice piece for me. The overwhelming percentage of persons nailed in our criminal justice system are persons of color. It’s a no-brainer in that respect.” 

Indeed, as New Jersey’s Advance Media points out, police across the state arrest Black people 3.5 times more often than whites for cannabis offenses, despite the fact that both communities use it at similar rates.

Murphy went on: “It’s a job creator. It’s a tax revenue raiser. It checks a lot of boxes. I hope we’ll get there sooner than later.” 

Political Deadlock Still a Threat

After fruitless attempts in the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a long-promised legalization bill, lawmakers moved to put the question to the voters last December. A measure approved by both houses, and supported by Murphy, officially places the question on the 2020 ballot.

The New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Amendment would allow use, cultivation and possession by those 21 or over. It does not set quantity limits, however—leaving that up to the enabling legislation, along with an oversight regime for adult-use sales. Given the Legislature’s record of inaction on the cannabis question, this means that even if the ballot measure passes, it could still be many months before legal sales can begin.

After the state legalized medical marijuana in 2010, it was almost three years before the first dispensary was able to open. Today, the state’s nearly 80,000 approved patients rely on just nine dispensaries—or Alternative Treatment Centers, as they are formally known. 

“After the state legalized medical marijuana in 2010, it was almost three years before the first dispensary was able to open.”

Polls in the state support full legalization, and a 2016 report from New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that Trenton could bring in $305 million in sales tax from adult-market cannabis sales.

There are other potential avenues for opening up some breathing space for cannabis in the Garden State. The lower-house Assembly last month voted to pass a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces—bringing New Jersey in line with New York across the Hudson River, which was one of the first states to decriminalize back in 1977. The Senate has yet to vote on the measure. 

Under current New Jersey law, 50 grams (an ounce and change) or less can land you a $1,000 fine or six months in prison.

Home Deliveries Coming 

The law creating the commission, signed by Murphy last July, was called the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, named after seven-year-old Jake Honig, of Howell Township, who died the previous January following a battle with brain cancer.

Among its measures aimed at expanding the medical marijuana program was a provision for home delivery—but, once again, the state Health Department never moved to enact this. However, the provision is clearly much more significant a year later, in light of pandemic-related restrictions on movement. 

This became especially apparent when hours-long lines backed up at Alternative Treatment Centers in March. Finally, on June 25, the Health Department announced that it had issued regulations allowing for home delivery to begin at four of the nine ATCs. 

But once again, there is a catch: Technically, the new regulations constitute a “waiver” from the current administrative code barring home deliveries. This is a work-around measure that does not actually bring the code into conformity with Jake’s Law.

“The Department continues to prioritize patient access during this unprecedented pandemic,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said in a statement, reported by Advance Media. “This new waiver will allow ATCs, once they have submitted a plan to the Department for approval, to deliver across the state.” 

The four ATCs are listed as Zen Leaf of Elizabeth, Rise Cannabis of Paterson, Harmony Dispensary of Secaucus and Curaleaf of Bellmawr.

But home delivery also has potential complications. Medical marijuana is a cash-only business in New Jersey, and there are concerns that delivery service may mean security risks for drivers.

TELL US, do you think New Jersey will legalize in November? 

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