Flaster Greenberg Launches Cannabis Law Practice Group Cannabis  Photo: Shutterstock.

The New Jersey legislature took its first major step Monday toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana by adults.

In votes split largely along party lines, a combined meeting of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee recommended passage of the New Jersey Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act.

It still must pass both the full Senate and Assembly, but Gov. Phil Murphy, long a proponent of marijuana legalization, has indicated his support for the legislation.

It remains unclear when the legislation will be put up for final votes.

The sponsors are Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, who has been pushing for legalization for years; Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester; and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union.

Scutari said the bill is likely to be subject to a number of amendments to assuage opponents’ concerns—chiefly stiffened penalties for black market marijuana dealers, additional funds for training law enforcement officers and more money to be used for educating youth about the potential dangers of using drugs, including marijuana.

“This is just the right thing to do,” Scutari said. “It’s clear that prohibition hasn’t worked.”

Scutari noted that marijuana use among minority groups is heavy and that those groups have been particularly hard-hit by enforcement efforts. Those with even minor marijuana convictions often lose their right to vote and to obtain funds for educational purposes and face difficulties in finding jobs.

There is, Scutari said, a racial tinge to marijuana prohibition laws. “In effect, they prohibit minorities from participating” in society, he said.

“The only people who are going to be hurt by this [legislation] are drug dealers,” added Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Union.

“This bill will create a strictly regulated system that permits adults to purchase limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. It will bring marijuana out of the underground market where it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been for decades,” Scutari said in a separate statement after the vote.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana for adults over 21.

There was significant opposition to the bill, chiefly from law enforcement groups and others who claim the legislation is nothing more than a grab for money by lawmakers and a governor who are desperate for additional tax revenues and for venture capitalists looking to make easy money off of users’ backs.

“This is not about social justice,” said one of the chief opponents, Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex. “It’s about money for white investors.”

The combined committees heard more than four hours of testimony from both opponents and supporters, although it appeared clear from the beginning that the sponsors had more than enough votes to recommend passage.

In short, the legislation would permit the possession and personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana for people 21 and over, create a regulatory scheme for what is expected to become a burgeoning industry, and levy a 12 percent tax on a commercial marijuana industry in the state. An extra 2 percent excise tax could be raised for cities and towns that allow marijuana sales businesses to operate within their borders.

Additionally, the legislation also calls for a fast-moving expungement process for those who have been convicted or arrested for possession or distribution of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Under the legislation, home delivery of marijuana would be allowed, as would the creation of lounges where people could gather and smoke marijuana.

Most sections of the bill would take effect within 180 days of enactment.