If New Jersey lawmakers pass a hotly debated bill to allow adult recreational use of marijuana, legalization in the Garden State would be quite different than it has been in the 10 states that paved the way, marking a seismic cultural shift that began in Colorado in 2014.
Unlike the laws in most of those states, New Jersey’s package would include a comprehensive bill that aims to correct racial and social injustices caused by the “War on Drugs” and the disproportionate arrests of minorities for simple possession of marijuana. Hundreds of thousands of criminal records would be expunged, and minorities would be guaranteed a share of the state’s cannabis business licenses.
The bill also would allow novel “consumption lounges.” Home deliveries, a fairly new concept in the cannabis industry, would be permitted, too.
The state’s legalization package is different in another key way: It would ban home cultivation, which has infuriated cannabis activists. Nine of the 10 legal-weed states allow residents to grow their own marijuana, and many states that allow medical marijuana give patients the right to nurture cannabis plants for their own consumption.
“This is the one thing patients are waiting for. .... There’s shortages at the dispensaries, and the medicine is still too expensive,” said Jo Anne Zito, a Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey board member and cannabis activist who organized a protest outside the Gloucester County office of New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney last week.
“They need more dispensaries, or anything that increases access, like home grow.... It’s almost a fundamental right to medicine that they’re denying,” Zito said. About 30 protesters paraded with signs in the parking lot of Sweeney’s district office in West Deptford, catching the legislator’s staff by surprise.
Many New Jersey patients who are enrolled in the state’s nine-year-old medical marijuana program have testified at the Statehouse in favor of a law that would allow them to grow their own cannabis to alleviate their ailments. They say the six dispensaries that serve more than 42,500 patients across the state often have shortages of the specific strains they need to help with their pain. They worry that if recreational marijuana is approved, the strains they require to help with their symptoms will take a backseat to the demand for strains with high THC, a psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
Among the 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only Washington prohibits home cultivation. On the flip side, Vermont and the District of Columbia only allow home grow and ban retail sales.
The co-sponsors of the legalization bill — Democrats Sweeney and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Nicholas Scutari — are standing firm on the issue. Home cultivation was left out of the bill a year ago when it was introduced in committee and was not part of a revised bill introduced last fall.
“I’m personally not against home grow, but we have to walk before we can run,” Scutari, a municipal prosecutor in Union County, said Tuesday. “In the future, it’s something we can consider, but we’re not putting it in now."
Colorado and most other states that allow home cultivation limit adults who are 21 and over to six plants. Scutari said Colorado officials have reported that one problem they wrestled with after they legalized cannabis was that some residents were growing weed and selling it “on the black market” in Nebraska and other places.
“It’s hard to police gardeners,” Scutari said.
The legalization package he and Sweeney are sponsoring also includes a bill that would expand the medical marijuana program. It would allow more dispensaries to open and loosen regulations that have made it difficult for patients to obtain cannabis.
“The goal of the medical marijuana expansion legislation is to specifically address the need of those who would benefit from greater access. The expansion bill would provide for this greater access in ways that would address all the medicinal needs of patients, " Sweeney said in a statement. “Home cultivation would not be necessary as access expands, producing a change in the market that will drive down costs.”
The recreational legalization bill and the medical marijuana expansion are linked and will be voted on as package, Sweeney said.
Many of the 33 states with medical marijuana programs permit patients to grow plants for their own consumption but restrict the amount. Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey allows this in its medical program.
But a recreational marijuana bill that may soon be introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate includes home cultivation — up to six plants. The proposal is in an early discussion stage.
A vote on New Jersey’s recreational marijuana bill — which has taken shape over the past year — was abruptly canceled by Sweeney last month after he said it fell short by a few votes. Since then, he and Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat whose campaign promises included legal weed, say they are working to persuade more lawmakers to support the measure.
Murphy has said he wants the vote to take place before the end of May. When asked Tuesday whether the vote gap was shrinking, Scutari said, “We’re still working on it.”
Sweeney and Scutari are focused on winning the votes they need to pass the nearly 200-page bill that includes racial justice reforms, an expansion and changes to the medical marijuana program, the creation of a regulatory commission that would decide how many dispensaries should open, and numerous other provisions that would become the framework for an anticipated multi-billion dollar industry.
Many cannabis activists are rallying around the recreational marijuana bill, even though it doesn’t have home cultivation. They say they are willing to let it go for now in the hope of getting the legalization bill passed.
“Well, our organization and I personally support S. 1023. If they pass that, then the medical bill passes along with it, and it’s the simplest solution for patients,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey. “It makes [marijuana] like an over-the-counter drug, rather than making patients go back and forth to the doctor every couple months to get recertified, which is ridiculous for chronic conditions.”
Scutari also held out the hope that home cultivation could be considered after legalization is approved and after its rollout is evaluated. “The legalization bill is hard enough to pass in current form. I understand the frustration, but it’s not something we can include now,” he said.