By Sam Wood and Jan Hefler
A bill to legalize recreational marijuana was approved by a House-Senate committee in the New Jersey Legislature Monday, a giant step toward making the cannabis plant and its products available in the state.
"It's very exciting. We made history today," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey. "This is the first time a legalization bill has ever been voted out of committee in New Jersey. So this was a huge win."
The bill would legalize the possession and use of limited amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older. It also would create a state system to oversee the operations of a new potentially multi-billion dollar industry.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 with two abstentions while the Assembly Budget Committee voted 7-3 with one abstention.
Democratic State Sen. Nick Scutari said he was "very optimistic" the bill will pass, but couldn't say when. "We moved it along quite well today, but a lot depends on the governor to help out," he said.
Scutari said Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated a "willingness to sign a legalization bill, in one form or another, and hopefully we will get an agreement from him and that should help us with the floor vote."
Next, the bill advances to the floors of the Senate and the Assembly for amendments and a final vote.
Three weeks ago, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest, and the 10th in the nation, to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Medical marijuana, meanwhile, is legal in 33 states.
Scutari said he was glad to see that "even some members of the committee who were against it said they remain open-minded." Scutari, a municipal prosecutor who was an architect of the medical marijuana bill that passed in 2009, said that final passage will depend on the ability to educate the lawmakers about the bill or to win them over with some changes.
Democratic state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney), who co-sponsored the bill, said its passage marked the Legislature's move into the 21st century.
"Marijuana is already being sold and used but it is the dealers who are running the drug trade and they are selling marijuana that is sometimes laced with other products," Sweeney said. "We developed a plan that will put in place rules and regulations that allow for adult-use cannabis in a responsible way. As a regulated product, legal marijuana will be safe and controlled."
Representatives of some police and sheriffs testified that legalizing the drug would cost the state millions of dollars. They pointed to the expense of retraining police officers, the overtime required to train them and the likelihood that drug-sniffing dogs would be put out of work.
Jeff Kasko, deputy mayor of Haddonfield, also expressed reservations, saying the proposed law would be less burdensome if municipalities could opt in, rather than opt out. Already, 47 towns have banned retail marijuana sales.
Ed Forchion, perhaps the state's best-known marijuana advocate, testified against the bill. Forchion, a Rastafarian also known as NJWeedman, said there was "no provision for religious use" of cannabis in the proposed law.
He saved his most pointed attack for corporate interests that take over sales from the illegal market. He claimed that the bill favors the "C.C.C., the Caucasian Cannabis Coalition." If Trenton lawmakers pass the bill, "I'll be emboldened to start selling weed like the white guys," Forchion said. "It's not going to eliminate the black market."
Others heralded the advancing legislation, which calls for home delivery and the creation of many small retailers.
Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said he hopes that both the legalization bill and one to expand the medical marijuana program will pass by mid-December, as some lawmakers have suggested.
A retired registered nurse, Wolski testified at the hearings in 2009 to pass a medical marijuana bill, and was struck by the similarities in the testimony. "Some of the very same opponents who opposed medical marijuana used the same arguments, that it was bad for children, it sends the wrong message and is a gateway drug, but we had a stronger argument and it passed. And we also had a stronger argument for legalization," he said.