What’s the Latest on Legalization in New Jersey?
By Bridget Hill-Zayat, Hoban Law Group
Cannabis legalization advocates began 2018 optimistically — if perhaps unrealistically — with assurances from the governor of New Jersey that he would pass adult-use cannabis legislation within his first 180 days in office. Governor Phil Murphy famously campaigned on the promise of widening the long-atrophied medical program and, more ambitiously, creating an adult-use market. The Governor was so confident that the legislature would pass adult-use, he included the expected tax revenues in his budget. A year later, New Jersey’s medical program is indeed broader and more robust, but the adult-use legislation has struggled to find enough votes for passage.
Medical Expansion- New Vertical Licenses, and Executive Order 6
New Jersey created a medical cannabis market on Jan. 14, 2010, on Governor Jon Corzine’s last full day in office. His successor Chris Christie, former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, promptly came into office and halted all efforts to expand or ease the already restrictive market. During a speech in Princeton hosted by the New Jersey Hospital Association, Christie famously called supporters of medical cannabis, “crazy liberals” willing to “poison our kids” for “blood money.” The medical program consequently suffered under his administration.
Shortly after his election in July 2018, Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 6, requiring the Department of Health and the Board of Medical Examiners to critically inspect the medical cannabis program to determine ways to improve access for patients. At the time, New Jersey had only 15,000 patients after eight years. Executive Order 6 directed the agencies to:
- Review current rules regarding where licensees could locate and to determine if the state should ease those restrictions;
- Improve the process required to obtain a license to operate a facility in the state;
- Examine the rules placed upon physicians participating in the program to alleviate compliance burdens and give doctors greater control in determining which patients should receive medication; and
- Contemplate widening the acceptable forms of cannabis for sale to better serve patients.
Shortly after the governor announced Executive Order 6, the Department of Health announced a new application process for six new vertically integrated licenses to complement the six existing licensees. Three regions (in the northern, central, and southern parts of the state) would each receive two licenses apiece. The Department of Health announced the winning licensees in December 2018. Currently, the market remains relatively small (with 40,000 patients among the denseness of the population generally), but Murphy has successfully doubled the patient population in the year since he assumed office.
Three bills moved out of committee in November 2018, including Sen. Sandra Cunningham’s mass expungement bill. The bill would require the Administrative Office of the Courts to devise an online system facilitating an entirely free method for people to completely erase low-level cannabis possession charges involving an ounce or less. It would also allow people with multiple crimes or disorderly persons offenses to seek expungement, provided they committed no other crimes within the following 10-year period, and pay all outstanding fines and fees. The bill would eliminate an existing law barring expungement of any controlled dangerous substance where the conviction is for crimes of the third or fourth degree.
Governor Murphy pushed strongly for adult-use cannabis from the inception of his campaign. Unlike most states with adult-use markets, New Jersey does not allow for citizen-led initiatives or referendums. The legislature refers all matters to the ballot. Like Massachusetts, New Jersey would need the legislature to pass a bill directly creating an adult-use market. To that end, the package of cannabis bills (including proposed adult-use legislation) was required to go to the joint Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and Assembly Appropriations Committee before proceeding to the floor for a vote. As previously mentioned, the adult-use bill successfully made it out of committee but was not voted on before the end of the year, now still awaiting the next possible vote.
While Governor Murphy and cannabis advocates achieved clear successes coalescing support for social justice issues — such as expungement, widening the medical cannabis market patient population, forms of cannabis, and qualifying conditions — they were less successful in maintaining momentum as it relates to the adult-use market. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in December 2018 that he would push to legalize cannabis in 2019. It remains unclear whether the fear of ceding tax dollars to New York (and potentially Pennsylvania) shall prove sufficient to push New Jersey to pass a bill this year.