Legal Weed Is Coming to New Jersey — But How Will That Work?

Election Day marked a turning point in the United State’s war on drugs, as Oregon decriminalized possession of drugs, Mississippi approved medical marijuana, and New Jersey passed its Question 1 proposed constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis. As the year draws to a close, however, just what needs to be done to make weed legal in the Garden State?

The Election Day vote was, apparently, the easy part — 65 percent of voters cast a ballot for a constitutional amendment that legalizes a recreational cannabis market for adults 21 and older. It was up to legislators, then, to figure out what exactly that would look like. An initial set of bills outlining this plan included one pertaining to legalization and another detailing decriminalization. The whole plan hit a wall in November, though, when the State Senate voted to add psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in psychedelic mushrooms, to the decriminalization bill — a move that postponed the final vote on the legislation.

That decision conceded with a call to add more social justice initiatives to the legalization bill, a move that would provide aid for the communities that have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs. (For example, the ACLU reports black people are 3.64 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana charges than white — even though both use cannabis at similar rates — so largely black communities are statistically in need of more aid.) Then, as they say, it was back to the drawing board.

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Legislative leaders finally announced they had agreed on a proposed plan on December 4th in a joint statement from Governor Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, and Assembly Majority Conference Chair Annette Quijano: “We’ve reached an agreement on legislation providing the framework for legalization, which is a critical step in reducing racial disparities and social inequities that have long plagued our criminal justice system. This legislation will accomplish our shared goals of delivering restorative justice and ensuring that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs see the economic benefits of the adult-use cannabis market. While there is still much work ahead, we are one step closer to building a new, promising industry for our state.”

That legislation will be sent to the floor for the final vote on Thursday, December 17th. So, then, what’s next? And what, exactly, are they voting on?

First: What’s Up for Vote on December 17th?

On December 17th, legislators will vote on three bills: one outlining the legalization of cannabis, another detailing the decriminalization of cannabis, and yet another that would downgrade penalties for possession of one ounce or less of psilocybin mushrooms.

What Happens After the 17th?

“Well, hopefully, the Governor [Murphy] signs [the bills] right away,” Senator Scutari tells Rolling Stone. Should all the bills pass, possession of cannabis would be decriminalized on January 1st — possession, not sales. That process will take a little longer.

The next step in legalization would be the formation of a cannabis regulatory commission (CRC). The CRC will be a board of five people — one appointed by the state senate president, one by the speaker of the assembly, and three by the governor. Murphy named Dianna Houenou — current administration staffer and former ACLU policy counsel for New Jersey — as leader of the CRC in November. He also nominated Jeff Brown to serve as executive director.

The medical marijuana program comes under the auspices of the Department of Health, but moving forward regulation will fall under this new department. Jersey currently has 12 operational medical marijuana facilities, though, which should be able to start selling product to adults over the age of 21 in “the immediate future,” according to Scutari — provided the needs of patients are met first. As of now, these facilities do not need new licenses to sell recreational weed.

How and When Will Businesses Be Able to Start Selling Weed?

This is a tricky question, since, as Scutari says, a CRC will need to be formed to regulate sales — also, as he points out, this is basically like setting up an alcohol industry from scratch. So it may be a while before you can order weed for delivery or visit a consumption cafe (a la Amsterdam), but Scutari says those options are on the horizon. The New York Times estimates new adult-use dispensaries will be up and running in about 18 months.

That may seem like a long time to wait, but, according to Charlana McKeithen, founder and director of Garden State NORML, pushing the timeframe up any further will negatively impact medical patients who need cannabis to treat ailments. The patient population has increased exponentially in recent years, to almost 100,000 people across the state, and prices are already surging. “The number of patients keeps increasing and the dispensaries have not been able to keep up,” she tells Rolling Stone.

As we said, Jersey currently has 12 medical marijuana facilities, but it will require far more to meet the needs of both patients and the general public. To sate that demand moving forward, aspiring growers will have to apply for a license. These should be available in the spring, according to the Senator, and there will be a limited number up for grabs: 37, with the possibility of more being released in two years. Still, those who want to grow will have to basically buy, staff, and run a farm or facility, so the process of putting that all together won’t exactly be swift. Micro-licenses for much smaller operations  — 10 or fewer employees — will also be available without limit. There will also be licenses for wholesale, distribution, manufacturing, retail, and delivery — the number of licenses available will depend on market demand.

McKeithen points out that placing such a limit on licenses could stymy access to cannabis both for patients and adults seeking recreational use. “We have like 12 dispensaries and over 95,000 patients,” she says. “The issue is New Jersey is not producing enough that we need to put a cap on it. Really what needs to happen is they need to create legislation and to let the regulatory commission take over and start adding as they see fit.”

Can I Grow My Own Weed?

Nope. Growing weed without a license is still illegal. Which is fine if you can afford cannabis, but for patients without the necessary funds, this is a setback. “NORML and every advocate organization and the state would like to see home grow at least for medical patients,” McKeithen says. “But right now we kind of stuck to our guns and just said, ‘Let’s get legalization done.’ … It’s unfortunate, but that’s where we are right now.”

What Will Sales Taxes Be Like for Weed?

There’s a big concern that high sales taxes will drive up the price of cannabis so much that the black market for weed will continue to flourish — as we’ve seen in California. Scutari counters that Jersey will start off with “the lowest tax rate” in the nation — less than 9 percent on the product. They will also entirely eliminate taxation on medical marijuana. As competition grows and the price of the product goes down, the tax will go up, because, according to the Senator, “The number-one concern is to make sure that we have a competitively priced product so that the illicit market will have more difficulty selling their product.”

McKeithen is not convinced this bill will effectively curb the black market, though. The prices will still need to be right. According to crowdsourcing site Budzu, in Colorado — one of the cheapest states for cannabis — an ounce of legal recreational weed is about $185 (for a high-quality product) and an ounce of medical product is $224. The street price for the same amount of recreational weed is around $260. In New Jersey, an ounce of medical weed is $255, while the street price for recreational weed is $270. The price of the recreational product, then, will have to be comparable or less than the medical price — preferably less, as McKeithen notes that the current price is far too high for some less affluent patients. She adds that people have actually opted for prescription medication over cannabis in recent years, as the former is too expensive. It remains to be seen how much cannabis will cost once it’s been made legal.

Where Are These Tax Dollars Going?

Legislators are particularly proud of their legalization bill where tax revenue is concerned. Thirty percent of that will go to police retraining when it comes to cannabis — since possession is no longer illegal (drugs sniffing dogs, for one, will have to be retrained). Impaired driving will also continue to be illegal, so officers will have to learn new processes for testing drivers who may be under the influence, according to Scutari.

Seventy percent, then, will go to communities that have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs — Scutari specifically cites reentry programs for those who have been imprisoned on drug charges. While there’s been some concern that this money would only be allocated to communities that boast bigger populations, the Senator clarifies that it will go to the most affected communities as well as areas that have a large enough population that drugs are statistically an issue. It’s currently unclear how long taxes will be divvied up as such; it will be up to the CRC in the future.

“My concern is where that money is going to go,” McKeithen says. “The majority of the resources really should go back into the black and brown communities because they were devastated by the war on drugs. We need things like economic development, education programs, entrepreneurship programs, mental health programs. … So a lot of work needs to be done in the black and brown communities to even get up to speed as to what our non-black and -brown counterparts are doing and how they lived their lives daily.” McKeithen would like to see this 70-percent allocation last a few years at least in order to undo the damage that has already been done — if not longer.

What’s the Deal With Decriminalization?

Come January 1st (provided the bill passes), possession of up to six ounces cannabis will no longer be illegal. “Somebody that has half a joint in their pocket is not going to get arrested for that anymore,” Scutari says. “And people that have been previously arrested and are awaiting trials or convictions, those charges are going to be dismissed. … We will clear the dockets of these petty marijuana charges.”

According to Scutari, very few people are actually currently serving time for possession — most are in prison due to sales — so this bill should have little effect on the prison population. Still, the bill does include vague language about reviewing such cases.

McKeithen says it’s not exactly accurate that incarcerations related to cannabis are limited; people could be pulled over or otherwise searched due to the scent of marijuana — then brought in on bigger charges if they were found with illegal materials. “They’re going to have to start looking at it on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “[If someone was brought in on] non-violent charges and it was initiated by marijuana, I would like to see something more helpful, whether it’s sentence reduction or something to get them home sooner, because, again, we’re making this plant legal and what initiated the situation was the plant.”

She adds that she’d like for there to more education in impacted communities on what exactly is and is not legal following the passage of the bill. “That’s a big thing in the black and brown community,” she says. “Because they don’t understand that once it’s legal, they can’t just jump in and do what they want to do. Having more than six ounces on you could cause you problems, not having proper labeling that shows you purchased it could cause you problems.” You can also rack up fines for smoking in areas that prohibit cigarettes.

Wait, What’s Going on With Shrooms?

Scutari added legislation reducing penalties for possession of psilocybin, again, in November. “I never felt that the usage of a drug is a criminal endeavor,” he says. “It probably shouldn’t be legal in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be making criminals out of people that are experimenting with drugs.”

Under the new bill, possessing an ounce of shrooms would no longer be a felony, but a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to six months in jail. Scutari says this move will be presented as its own bill, so even if it does not pass on December 17th, it will not interfere with any moves regarding cannabis.

McKeithen, for one, is glad that this bill has been divorced from the issue of cannabis. “I appreciate what they did to separate it,” she says. “Especially for the black and brown communities, because our problem was marijuana, not [shrooms].”

Could This Bill Change Any Further?

The short answer is, it’s possible. Scutari maintains that it will not, but McKeithen is not convinced: “If that bill is on that floor and they say, ‘Let’s negotiate,’ they’re going to negotiate because they don’t want to leave on the 17th without that bill being passed. We’ve been through this.”

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