NJ Cannabis Media -
December 3, 2018

Will there be a vote Dec. 17 on marijuana legalization bill?

Written by Marc Schwarz
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The answer is: A definite maybe.

Dec. 17 is the next voting date – and the last scheduled one for 2018 – for the New Jersey Legislature. What will it take to get the three cannabis-related bills that were approved by committee on Nov. 26 on the docket?

“We still have some work to do,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, who is a primary sponsor of two of the bills, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act and the expungement revision bill.

What is that work?

Securing the votes

The 21 votes in the Senate and the 41 votes in the Assembly needed to pass aren’t quite there yet.

“We have some steps ahead. I have some colleagues who want some fixes and that’s OK,” Holley said. “I have some colleagues who were no, but really, really want to go to yes.”

Bill Caruso, the managing director at Archer Public Affairs and a long-time advocate for legalization, concurred.

“I think the Assembly is close to 41, although not there yet. And I think the Senate is a way off from 21, they have some work yet to do there,” he said. “So the first question I have is what does it take to get the votes?  And is there an opportunity to fix this legislation and what is the mechanism for that?”

What are the obstacles?

Many people involved in the process told NJ Cannabis Media that the bills – particularly the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act – aren’t quite there yet.

“We’ve come a long way, but we have a little bit more to go,” Holley said. “Some more changes to the bill, some more interests we need to include in the bill, some more tweaks we need to do in the bill.”

“The legislation does have some challenges that need adjustment in order to make this a successful endeavor for all involved,” New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Scott Rudder said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the bill sponsors to make these much-needed adjustments.”

The main sticking points appear to be the tax rate and the make-up and power of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, a new entity that would oversee all aspects of the cannabis industry.

The all-powerful commission

As written in the bill, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission will  basically be deciding everything cannabis related – who gets into the industry, what the rules are and how big the industry will be.

Who sits on the commission and who it answers to – politically –  is apparently one of the behind-the-scenes battles.

Tax rate issues times two

The language in S2703 calls for a 12 percent state tax and a maximum of 2 percent additional tax rate for municipalities.

The League of Municipalities has stated it wants 5 percent.

“Mayors and local governments need to come to the table with some specific asks now to articulate why that 2 percent tax rate needs to be raised to whatever it needs to be,” Caruso said. “There is a potential opportunity for them to eke out a little bit more on that tax rate on the localized level that will help pay for some of things including expungement reform.

“But they’ve got to come to the table and figure that out and then, by the way bring votes. It’s very easy go to the legislature and say we want a 5 percent tax rate. By the way, you need six more votes. Here they are.”

The other potential complication is Governor Murphy, who has not publicly shown a willingness to accept the 12 percent rate that Senate President Stephen Sweeney has put forth. Earlier bill language has an escalated tax rate that would ultimately reach 25 percent.

Which brings up another obstacle: the governor.

Will Murphy get involved?

After running on legalization as a prominent campaign issue, the governor has not been going out of his way to show his support –  publicly and according to numerous insiders as well as press reports, privately either.

On the day the legalization bill was passed through committee, Murphy was giving a press conference on raising the minimum wage.

As two insiders told NJ Cannabis Media, the governor needs to signal what issues he has with the bill whether it’s directly or indirectly through advocates and/or surrogates.

Three days after the bills were passed through committee, Murphy tweeted, “Our administration is committed to social justice and breaking the cycle of non-violent, low-level drug offenses that disproportionately affect people, especially people of color. That is why I support the legalization of adult-use marijuana” along with a video.

There’s been some talk of passing the bill and Murphy issuing a conditional veto to work out the language he doesn’t agree with. But that theory was being downplayed by several industry experts, who basically said some legislators won’t vote for the bill if the governor might issue a conditional veto.

“The sense of the legislators is we’re not going to waste our time and capital to get votes for something that’s not going to get signed,” one insider said.

It’s also a matter of Murphy and legislative leaders talking – something they haven’t done in two months, according to multiple reports.

During a League of Municipalities webinar Friday on the bill, Assistant Executive Director Michael Cerra addressed the issue.

“There are still differences between the legislative sponsors and the governor’s office on some significant issues in the bill that may – perhaps will likely – delay a final vote,” he said, adding discussions will likely continue into the new year.

What happens if it’s not Dec. 17?

What could happen on Dec. 17 is amendments are made to the bill and then a vote is scheduled for January.

“To some extent this is a long time coming, we can wait a couple of weeks,” Caruso said of pushing back the vote. “I am concerned that if this does bleed on into the budget process then we start talking about well, maybe this is a June thing.”

And the more it gets pushed back the more complicated passage gets.

“I’ve also started to hear, well, if we can’t get this done maybe we could go to the ballot,” he continued.

That would require a constitutional amendment and a November vote for a December enactment in a lame-duck legislature.

“And then, if we don’t get the enactment bill done, then we’re starting with a new legislative effort in the new term in  January 2020,” he added. “Then we’re trying to get some something enacted where we won’t be selling legal cannabis in our state to probably 2021?

“That’s unacceptable.”

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