Photo: Mitch M/

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders reached agreement on key provisions in a plan to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, including how to tax and regulate it, and expunging past low-level marijuana offenses for certain users as a step toward social reform.

The agreement, arriving after several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, was announced Tuesday in a news release promising introduction of a bill within days.

Under the revised legislation:

  • Adult-use marijuana would be subject to an excise tax of $42 per ounce, which will be imposed when marijuana is cultivated.
  • Municipalities that are home to a cultivator or manufacturer would receive the revenue from a 2 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction.
  • Municipalities that are home to a wholesaler would receive the revenue from a 1 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction.
  • Municipalities that are home to a retailer would receive the revenue from a 3 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction.

Among those on board, according to the release, are Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union.

Both Scutari and Quijano control the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees that the bill must clear to reach floor votes in each chamber.

“Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system,” Murphy said in a statement. “I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities, while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes.”

In his recent 2020 fiscal year budget address, social equity and marijuana were clearly on Murphy’s radar as he announced that he would only sign a marijuana bill that expunged past marijuana offenses under certain circumstances—which the new bill delivers.

“This is the right step for eliminating decades-old and persistent racial and social inequities,” Murphy said in his March 5 speech outlining a $38.6 billion state budget.

The revised legislation would establish an expedited expungement process for individuals convicted of low-level marijuana offenses, and a virtual expungement process that would automatically prevent certain marijuana offenses from being taken into account in certain areas such as education, housing and occupational licensing.

Additionally, there are a number of provisions that aim to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for minority- and women-owned businesses, low- and middle-income individuals, and disadvantaged communities across the state.

Sweeney said the plan would take marijuana “out of the underground market” and provide a fair regulatory framework.

“This plan will allow for the adult use of cannabis in a responsible way,” Sweeney said. “It 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 so that it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been since the end of Prohibition.”

Sweeney—echoing Murphy—said the legislation would also “advance important social reforms to help reverse the discriminatory impact that drug laws have had on diverse communities.”

“We talked and we negotiated in good faith, but most importantly, we listened,” Coughlin said. “I believe this new, regulated industry will help boost our economy, but I’m particularly proud of the critical social justice components included in the bill.”

“The prohibition on marijuana has long been a failed policy,” Scutari added. “This plan will bring an end to the adverse effects our outdated drug laws have had on the residents of our state. As a regulated product, legalized marijuana will be safe and controlled.”

Despite backing from key leadership, the proposal has critics.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has been among the most vocal opponents of marijuana legalization from the start, was clearly not on board with the latest plan. He called it a “shameful abdication of our duty to protect public health and safety” in a statement Tuesday. Last November, Cardinale testified before the Senate Budget Committee in opposition to the legislation.

“The principle duty of government is to safeguard public health and safety. Legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a shameful abdication of that responsibility,” he said. “In November, New Jersey’s law enforcement community testified that we don’t have the funds, personnel, or technology to identify drugged drivers.

“This doesn’t just put marijuana users at risk. Innocent people who have never touched pot in their life can’t get on a Colorado highway anymore without fear of being hit by a drugged driver,” Cardinale said. “This public safety crisis will be substantially worse in New Jersey, because we are the most densely populated and congested state in the nation.

“Mark my words—you won’t be able to pull onto the Turnpike without encountering a drugged driver. … We need to think about these problems before rushing towards legalization.”

Cardinale said he also took issue with the “social reform” argument to legalizing marijuana, calling it “utter B.S.”

“The judges and prosecutors who are handling marijuana sentences are simply following our existing drug laws,” he said. “They were appointed by the administration with the consent of the state Senate. If they are not doing their job in a colorblind fashion, then let’s hold them accountable [for] that egregious offense. The answer isn’t to legalize a dangerous drug, and put more people in harm’s way.”

Dr. John Poole, president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, also expressed “grave concerns” over the revised marijuana legislation and urged the governor and the same legislative leaders to exercise restraint in moving forward with it.

“While physicians support decriminalizing adult use for social justice reasons, they oppose legalizing recreational use,” Poole said in a statement. “Creating an entire new industry to sell an intoxicating product to adult users is antithetical to improving the health status of our citizenry.

“Adult use products, such as alcohol and tobacco, are enticing to adolescents and young adults. Legal marijuana will be no different,” he said. “Our state faces high rates of chronic disease, poor maternal health outcomes and sedentary lifestyles. These conditions will not be improved by legalizing marijuana and promoting its use.”

Under the proposed legislation, adult-use marijuana would be governed by a Cannabis Regulatory Commission, composed of five members—three appointed directly by the governor without Senate confirmation, to serve terms of at least four years, and two appointed by the governor upon the recommendations of the speaker and Senate president.

The commission would be tasked with promulgating all regulations to govern the industry and overseeing applications for licensing of adult-use marijuana dispensaries.