The public passed marijuana legalization on Nov. 6th supposedly to be free of the regulatory intrusiveness of government, and today the state Senate Appropriations Committee demonstrated new vistas of intrusive potential as it passed – along party lines – Senate Bill No. 21, with some amendments targeting social justice concerns that diverged from the Assembly version of the bill and created more questions than answers.
S. 21, titled the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act,” primarily concerns the development, regulation, and enforcement of activities associated with the personal use, by persons 21 years of age or older, of legal cannabis or cannabis resin (the terms provided to distinguish the legalized products from unlawful marijuana or hashish). According to the language of the bill, this would be accomplished through the expansion of the scope and duties of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, created by P.L.2019, c.153 (C.24:6I-5.1 et al.) to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program, which is primarily set forth in the “Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act,” P.L.2009, c.307 (C.24:6I-1 et al.).
Too many last minute amendments, griped state Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), who worried about the taxes Trenton politicians seemed to be intent on imposing, and new bureaucracies to forge. He voted no.
An always similarly tax fretful state Senator Michael Testa (R-1) noted that federal government contracts could be in jeopardy if impacted employers fail to maintain a drug-free environment.
“The people of New Jersey voted for and support legalization, but they didn’t vote for this bill,” said Testa. “This bill has been pushed and pulled in so many directions by special interests and legislators who want nothing more than to get their hands on a tax windfall. I had to vote ‘No’ and I am disappointed that Trenton couldn’t do the right thing and pass a bill that has not be corrupted by greed.”
He voted no.
Not enough of a social justice dimension, said state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), reinforcing an NAACP, state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) and Rev. Charles Boyer grievance, who all want the criminal justice component put back in the bill. Ruiz ultimately voted yes to push the bill out of committee.
Social justice advocates backed the bill did so with the belief that there would be a social justice component. Tasked by the Legislative Black Caucus to secure those provisions, state Senator Troy Singleton (D-7) said the amendments – unlike the assembly version of the bill – included a 70% dedication of the sales tax money, the largest chunk – to impacted communities.
“I’m incredibly excited,” said Singleton. “I’ve got to thank the senate president and Senator Scutari. “Unequivocally, when they [critics of the earlier iteration of the bill] have an opportunity to read through these amendments they will look where it started and see a monumental leap forward in terms of demonstrable commitment.”
The senator said the new, revamped senate version bill would dedicate monies for educational support, literacy programs, extended learning time programs, GED preparedness, tutoring, vocational, financial literacy, economic development, legal aid, social support services, food assistance, mental health treatment, youth recreation, and low interest loans for minority and women’s business development. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission is charged with dispersing that money, 70% of all sales tax.
“It’s a better idea than even I had imagined when this started,” Singleton.
But the assembly version doesn’t contain that amendment and has a different set of caps, complicating the legislative process – “a diabolically cluttered legislative process,” a source added, “that once again has left the public behind.”
State Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36), chair of appropriations, had his own set of worries.
He’s bothered by the impact of marijuana legalization on the workplace and the lack of measurable tests comparable to breathalyzers. Might workers unfairly become targets of their employers and suspected of doing drugs on the job? And who would be saddled with the cost of testing equipment?
“We need to think through the employee and employer protections,” said the Bergen-based senator.
“We now have two bills that are completely different, he added, referring to the senate and assembly versions. “My concerns are not fatal to the passage of the bill, but I need to have some labor lawyers take a closer look.”
None of it really seemed to worry state Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-22), who authored the bill, and who kept reminding his colleagues that marijuana will be legal in January on the strength of the referendum’s passage, regardless of whatever refinements they introduced.
But state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) continued to have questions.
“I think it’s being rushed,” the senator told InsiderNJ.
He said he liked the committee’s amendment to include a dedication of the sales tax to communities of need, but had questions about the delivery system of those monies, and wants to see the installation of a chief diversity officer.
He also wants to make sure that monies go to businesses owned by women and minorities “across the board” and not merely to gummy bear shops.
“I have a huge question mark about mushrooms put into the bill, that’s Scutari again,” said Rice. “He’s helping out. That’s going to create a new product that we don’t even use.”
Critics also worried about what they say is a lack of meaningful expungement reform on the criminal justice side of legislation, and fear a separate bill does not go deep enough.
“It’s extremely disappointing, to say the least,” said People’s Organization for Progress Founder and Executive Director Larry Hamm. “Expungement has to be a part of the process of legalization. Once you legalize, people are already poised to go into business, big business, while those busted for a couple of ounces are still in prison.”
One source described the front office as an absent influencer today while the lower and upper house wrestled with a thorny and complex issue.