Legal weed clears joint committee, but will Murphy play ball on final deal?

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

There was an overflow crowd at Monday’s joint session of the Senate and Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committees. After years of discussions, formal and otherwise, this was to be the hearing to end all hearings. Four bills aimed at answering concerns about the state’s relationship to one of the world’s oldest crops.

“This isn’t about social justice, this is about money. Let’s face it, we all know it’s about money,” said Michael Mastronardy, Ocean County sheriff.

“Painfully absent in your testimony is any suggestion of a solution, other than for us not to do anything today in supporting this legislation,” said Assemblyman Joe Danielsen.

For such a long-awaited showdown on the issue, the arguments presented were quite well-worn — from opponents repeating oft-debunked statistics to supporters insisting that social justice, not money, were the chief motivating factors.

Highlights of the four bills include:

  • Legalize possession and personal use for adults
  • Establish a “Cannabis Regulatory Commission”
  • Impose a 12 percent tax on the industry
  • Allow participating municipalities to add a 2 percent excise tax
  • Establish a framework for expungements
  • Allow any doctor to prescribe cannabis for any diagnosed condition
  • Double the limit of medical cannabis to 4 ounces a month

Although testimony went as expected, there were a few sharp exchanges, including one between former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a legalization opponent who sat on the president’s opioid commission, and the bill’s sponsor.

“My point is if it hasn’t worked for alcohol, if it hasn’t worked on OxyContin, what in the world makes you think you can keep this horse in the barn and keep them from actively marketing to kids because, understand, that’s their profit motive, is getting new consumers,” Kennedy said.

“You just said that we didn’t learn our lesson from alcohol, so would you suggest that we prohibit the sale of alcohol in the state of New Jersey? Would that benefit our children and our citizens?” asked Sen. Nick Scutari.

“Senator, I know what you’re doing. I know there’s a rhetorical thing that’s good for media to play,” Kennedy replied.

“I’m not doing it for the media. I’m asking you what your opinion on the prohibition of alcohol is,” said Scutari.

“That’s just such a red herring,” Kennedy said.

“You brought it up, sir,” said Scutari.

In all, almost 100 witnesses were scheduled to testify and scores of others submitted statements for and against. But Monday was a rare opportunity to see an actual, sometimes strident, debate on the merits of the bills.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley and Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski who complained about the lack of resources for enforcement.

“You just were put on record that there was very limited resources for you, so why is it that African-American males in particular are being convicted and arrested more than their white counterparts,” Holley said.

“I think there are studies that need to be done on that so that we can find out what that particular issue is,” Zebrowski said.

“I don’t really think we need more studies because the FBI data is very clear. African-American males, through your officers, are two to three, sometimes four to five times as likely to be arrested,” Holley said.

“Well first of all, I don’t think we know the underlying reasons for those arrests,” Zebrowski said.

“Well, I do,” Holley replied.

“No, you don’t,” the chief said.

“You don’t know the underlying reason, but I know the underlying reason, and the underlying reason is their skin color,” Holley said.

Sources say the bills won’t likely see a floor vote until 2019, after the governor, the Senate president and the Assembly speaker have a final sit down, because around here, those are the votes that count the most.