POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

A legal weed deal is done, unless it’s actually not

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

A potential deal on marijuana legalization is imminent, say sources in the Legislature. It’s a potential deal because — like a lot of this process — a final deal depends on some big maybes, like can Gov. Phil Murphy whip some votes?

“I am told and we have read hundreds of times that the governor of the state of New Jersey is the most powerful chief executive in the land and he’s going to need to use that to help the Senate president, and myself and the speaker to get us some votes,” said Sen. Nick Scutari.

Scutari has been a driving force behind the legalization effort, pushing and pulling on all the permutations of the bill. He says help from the governor and two major compromises could be the key to finally get the deal done.

First, lawmakers have agreed to a flat tax of $42 per ounce. That’s a change from a percentage of the sale price in previous bills.

Second, the governor will appoint three of the five members to the Cannabis Control Commission. That’s direct appointments, meaning no advise and consent from the Senate for the first three years. The other two members will come — one each — from the Senate president and the Assembly speaker.

But you may want to wait before you go out and buy that vape pen or box of EZ Wider papers. Holdouts, led by Newark’s Sen. Ron Rice, say legal weed will be a death knell to communities of color where drugs and crime have made economic development impossible.

“I’m still a no. Every day there is new information about why we shouldn’t do this,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “This is about money, it’s not about social justice. Why should we pass something that makes money for investors on the backs of black and brown people?”

Rice says if social justice is the goal, decriminalization and a stronger, clearer path to expungements will accomplish that. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like David Serrano and Salam Diri, who are hoping to open Honey Vault, a dispensary and consumption lounge in Hoboken, are left to cool their heels.

“Every day that we wait is a day of money lost, and we’re certainly not rich beyond our wildest dreams, so we have to take a logical, reasonable approach to this business. And so every day that this law isn’t signed, it just means that we’re burning more cash,” said Serrano.

“Our end goal is to have a dispensary and a consumption lounge in Hoboken, and that needs to be done for the community as soon as possible,” added Diri, “and we’re losing money every month that we’re not open.”

For his part, the governor didn’t commit to whipping votes, or to much of anything when he was asked about it Tuesday.

“I think I would say optimistic, but we’re still trying to machine this to get it over the goal line,” he said.

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association added, “If we were uncomfortable with how it’s going to be regulated and that was going to create some issues in the future, it’s better to be smart about it today and not worry about fixing it tomorrow.”

So far, Democrats have shown an ability to come together in order to move the governor’s agenda forward, even on difficult issues like the minimum wage. But legalizing marijuana is proving to be their biggest challenge to date, and getting it done will require their most concentrated and coordinated effort yet.