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N.J. moves a big step closer to legalizing marijuana

Senate Bill 2703 would legalize the possession and use of limited amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older. It also faces potential opposition from towns that want more flexibility to accept or reject retailers.

FILE – Marijuana plants grow under lights.
FILE – Marijuana plants grow under lights.Read moreKim Mone, File

A bill to legalize recreational marijuana was voted out of a joint committee in the New Jersey legislature Monday afternoon, marking a giant step towards making the cannabis plant and its products available for legal adult use.

"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."

Senate Bill 2703 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 multibillion-dollar industry.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 with two abstentions; the Assembly Budget Committee voted 7-3 with one abstention.

Moments after the bill cleared, Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union) said he was "very optimistic" the legalization bill would pass but said he just "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 that Gov. Murphy had 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 final votes. If it passes both houses, it would head to the governor's desk for his signature.

Three weeks ago, Michigan became the 10th state — and first  in the Midwest — to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Medical marijuana  is legal in 33 states, including Pennsylvania and most recently Utah and Missouri.

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 winning final passage would depend on the ability to educate the lawmakers about the bill or to win them over with some changes.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who co-sponsored the bill, said its passage marked the legislative bodies' 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," said Sweeney. "We developed a plan that will put in place rules and regulations that allow for adult use of cannabis in a responsible way. As a regulated product, legal marijuana will be safe and controlled."

Representatives from some police and sheriffs groups testified that legalizing the drug would cost the citizens of the Garden State millions of dollars. They pointed to the expense of training or retraining police officers 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 had the option to opt-in, rather than opt-out.  Already 47 towns have banned  retail marijuana sales.

Ed Forchion, perhaps the Garden 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 included in proposed law.

And he saved his most pointed attack for corporate interests that would take over sales from the illegal market. He claimed that the bill favors only 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. Separate pieces of legislation would expunge convictions for minor marijuana convictions and expand the state's medical marijuana program.

"Today, for the first time, members of the New Jersey Legislature cast a vote on legalizing marijuana. With additional amendments, New Jersey could be a national leader in cannabis legalization," said ACLU-NJ policy counsel Dianna Houenou, who also criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the proposed law. The latest version of the bill was made public only seven days ago.

Chris Goldstein, an advocate and organizer for NORML in Philadelphia and South Jersey, said Monday's vote reflected "a years worth of backroom deals, none of which have been sealed up yet."

Even supporting members of the committees said the bill needed a lot of work, Goldstein said.

"It leaves a tremendous responsibility for the details up to a future regulating body," he said. And Goldstein warned that it could take several years beyond legalization to see retail sales begin. "Any legislative body wants to see it done faster than that, but I wouldn't expect adult-use sales to start before 2020."

Assemblyman Jamal C. Holley (D., Union) said he thought the bill stood a chance of passage before the end of the year.

"I think this will be one of the best model bills in the nation when it is passed," Holley said. "I want the senate president and the governor to get over their differences on the taxes and the commission."

While the early versions of the bill called for a graduated tax, which would eventually be about 25 percent, Sweeney in recent months proposed a fixed 12 percent tax, saying that regulated marijuana would then be better able to compete with street sales.  Murphy prefers the higher tax.

Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said he was hopeful that both the legalization bill and one to expand the medical marijuana program would 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.