On March 18, 2019, New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees approved companion bills that would pave the way for marijuana legalization and the expungement of prior cannabis convictions.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 6-1, with two abstentions, in favor of legislation that was revised just before the vote to expand the expungement provisions and amend the tax structure of the cannabis industry.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also passed an amended version of the legalization bill in a 6-4 vote, with one abstention.

“There have been far too many people, especially those from Black and Hispanic communities, who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D), the bill’s prime sponsor, said in a press release. “It is time we listen to the will of the majority of New Jerseyans and take a common-sense approach to regulation of cannabis. This bill is a huge first step.”

Expungement of criminal records

The committees also approved legislation that would revise the qualifying criteria for medical marijuana patients, and a separate companion bill that deals with the expungement procedures for various criminal records.

According to Assembly member Jamel Holley (D), who sponsored the expungement legislation, “without this bill, many residents would continue to be affected by the criminalization of small amounts marijuana as a result of prior convictions long after the laws change.”

“Broader regulation around expungement will give residents the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate, enabling them to gain employment and seize the opportunities life presents them,” he said.

Following months-long negotiations in the Assembly and the Senate, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leaders of the chambers announced a week earlier that they had finally found mutually agreeable solutions. Although the most contentious elements of the bills, such as the tax rate, were agreed upon earlier, the last-minute amendments prolonged both committee hearings by hours.

Earlier this month, Murphy announced his budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, in which he projected $60 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.

Murphy rallied support for the legislation among lawmakers and activists all day, but it is unclear whether it would be enough to push it through the Senate. The final confrontation could take place this week.

Sen. Kip Bateman (R) expressed his concerns about the process in the run-up to the vote, saying that the committee hadn’t seen the final version of the bill and said he would be voting “no.”

“Legalizing marijuana would have an enormous impact on all of our communities. Asking us to form an opinion without seeing the full details of the bill is an incredibly irresponsible way to govern,” Bateman said.

Sen. Michael Doherty (R) was also against the bill and called it “a deal with the devil that sacrifices children and communities for short-term political gain.”

Before the official debate started, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D), who along with several other mayors demanded automatic expungement of prior cannabis convictions before they could allow marijuana businesses in their municipalities, spoke at the Assembly.

“If we are going to legalize marijuana in the state of New Jersey, then we should remedy all of the folks who have been victimized by a war on drugs,” he said. “We believe that the onus should not be put on the individual but in fact should be put on the state itself.”

Murphy responded that “virtual expungement” could be possible and in fact the amended bill does include it, but automatic expungements would not be realizable.

The key aspect of the legislation is legalizing possession, consumption and purchasing certain amounts of cannabis for adults over the age of 21. The bill would also allow deliveries and social consumption sites, though not home cultivation.

Tracking the impact of legalization

A five-member commission would be set up to study the impacts of legalization and ensuring social equity in the industry. It would also be responsible for issuing licenses for cannabis cultivators, processors and retailers.

“Today’s votes are an important step toward legalizing adult-use marijuana in New Jersey. Although this bill is not perfect, we greatly appreciate the changes that the sponsors of the legislation have made based on the recommendations of advocates,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “While we are encouraged by the inclusion of provisions that our coalition has advocated for – such as expanded expungement – to better address fairness and equity, we are disappointed that there is no provision that allocates tax revenue generated by marijuana sales back to the communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition.”

A joint session of Assembly and Senate committees agreed on a legalization bill last year, but the negotiations between Murphy and Assembly and Senate lawmakers prevented it from reaching full floor votes.

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