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Home delivery, weed lounges in N.J.’s latest legalization plan

Marijuana legalization takes on a new twist – home deliveries and smoking lounges – in New Jersey

New Jersey lawmakers  traveled to Denver a year ago to observe marijuana operations at the Medicine Man facility.  Now they are weighing a legalization bill.
New Jersey lawmakers traveled to Denver a year ago to observe marijuana operations at the Medicine Man facility. Now they are weighing a legalization bill.Read moreERIC BELLAMY / For the Inquirer )

The bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is a 166-page goodie bag that says yes to home deliveries made through a smartphone app and to BYOW (bring-your-own weed) smoking lounges. It would also allow hotels to set aside 20 percent of their guest rooms for cannabis tokers, offer legal forgiveness to people arrested for possessing and selling small amounts of weed, encourage the cannabis industry to set up union shops, and more, much more.

The proposal that is advancing to the floor of the Legislature, after a committee hearing last week, is now on full display after weeks of backroom discussions. Supporters predict it will become a model for other states with its all-inclusive approach to weed regulation, while critics say it is an overly ambitious plan that sends the wrong message to children.

Even the sponsors recognize that some of the 67,583-word treatise may have to be tweaked or eliminated during efforts to finalize the law. A final vote could come as soon as Dec. 17, when the state Senate and Assembly meet again, but some say that may be unrealistic.

"It's not impossible, but more likely it would be January," Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), a major architect of the bill, said Friday.

Patrick Murray, a political analyst and pollster at Monmouth University, predicted the vote will be close and will take more time. "With a large bill like this, with both cultural and economic impacts, you really have to bring together a very large coalition of disparate folks in order to pass something like this," he said.

If the measure passes, New Jersey could become the 11th state to legalize marijuana, uh, cannabis. The new bill is titled the Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act and the word marijuana was struck numerous times from the older version of the bill, introduced in June, after voluminous amendments were recently added.

"I think it's a good piece — that's not to say it's perfection. We won't let perfection get in the way of getting a bill passed," Scutari said after the committee voted on the measure and it cleared a significant first hurdle. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a cosponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

The amendments, first revealed to the public during the hearing Monday, are sweeping.

The sponsors included provisions that would appeal to residents who want to enjoy marijuana much as they do alcohol — setting up "consumption lounges" that sell food and allow patrons to smoke cannabis. Other parts of the bill address concerns raised by social-justice advocates who say African Americans have suffered from disparate marijuana enforcement and should have their criminal records wiped clean quickly.

The amendments also offer perks to home-rule enthusiasts who want to decide whether to allow marijuana in their towns, and to lawmakers who want control over a potentially multibillion-dollar industry by creating a commission that would regulate it.

Most unique is the part that would allow home deliveries for recreational, adult use of cannabis. No unmanned Tesla-like mobile would be allowed to make the drop, the bill says. And leaving the engine running would be verboten.

Cannabis products would be delivered only to a real, "physical address" in New Jersey (not to a cornfield or a desolate parking lot). Licensed dispensaries or micro-business retailers would oversee the whole operation, verifying the drivers are 18 or older and that consumers are 21 or older.

Delivery vehicles would not be allowed to have markings that reveal they are carrying cannabis — no pictures of a green leaf — and must be equipped with GPS tracking. And, cannabis products would have to be transported in the vehicle's storage bed.

Chris Goldstein, an advocate and organizer for the pro-marijuana group NORML in Philadelphia and South Jersey, said he suggested home deliveries months ago and was laughed at. But then cannabis-industry representatives picked up on the idea as a way to expand their customer base. Parts of California, Colorado, and Oregon have home deliveries, he said.

"The consumer would load up, say, $100, in a weed account, and order marijuana from a micro-business retailer who would be like an Uber driver for weed," he said. "It would all be done through a smartphone app."

Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D., Union), a cosponsor of the bill, said he added home deliveries to the bill after seeing how well it worked in California and how it brought in millions in revenue. This also would answer critics who say cannabis users will get high and drive. "Folks can get deliveries," he said.

"Why not?" asked Scutari. "There are alcohol delivery programs. This would allow automatic tracking. It was another request from people wanting jobs in the industry."

Another striking provision in the bill, tucked halfway into the text, calls for "consumption lounges." The proposal goes beyond what is offered by most other states where marijuana is legal. Patrons would be free to purchase cannabis products in a dispensary and then walk to a separate area to imbibe. And they would also be allowed to Bring Their Own. Weed, that is. Think breweries or bars with a twist.

Scutari said that he added lounges to the bill after learning that some residents might not have access to weed if they live in apartment buildings where smoking is banned.

Scutari also has visited Amsterdam, which is known for its regulated cannabis cafes. He said that he observed how they were a boon for tourists and caused few problems.

The bill also pays homage to the state's home-rule tradition, which gives the local governing bodies of the state's 565 municipalities considerable power over what is permitted within their borders. The cannabis bill would allow towns to pass ordinances to ban weed businesses and consumption lounges. It's unclear whether such bans would include deliveries.

Cannabis users would be prohibited from driving under the influence, the bill further states. Police would get special training to learn how to detect intoxication and to use blood tests to confirm it.

Also, anyone who purchases black-market marijuana could face fines that start at $25. Police would have discretion over issuing such fines, based on their observations and investigations.

The social-justice issues surrounding criminal enforcement of marijuana laws are a big focus of the bill. Disproportionate numbers of minorities are arrested for marijuana, and that creates a criminal record that prevents them from obtaining jobs, education, housing, and loans, the sponsors said.

To make amends, as many as 25 percent of cannabis licenses would be set aside for minorities who live in the state so that they can open micro-businesses in the industry. That provision was added after advocates complained the new marijuana industry would be controlled by mostly white investors and out-of-state corporations.

The licenses also would be awarded with an eye toward setting up more dispensaries and grow sites in towns where marijuana arrests have been high and where communities have been impacted the most.

Applicants seeking these competitive licenses would get a higher score in the process by agreeing to set up union shops, under yet another provision, added to the bill by Sweeney, a vice president with the International Association of Iron Workers.

Anyone arrested for marijuana possession in recent months would have their charges dropped almost automatically, and those convicted of minor marijuana charges would be eligible to have their criminal records expunged expeditiously. Those charged with low-level marijuana sales also would be excused if the person possessed less than one ounce of cannabis.

Despite the measure's seeming momentum, Gov. Murphy, who campaigned last year on a platform that he favors legalization, has some objections that could scuttle the bill or delay the vote. His spokesperson provided a video clip of comments he made at a news conference Monday when asked about the bill. "I've not read it yet," he said, adding, "… I'm glad we're making progress." In another clip his office provided, Murphy said a few days later, "We haven't commented on specifics, but I'm very happy this is moving."

For now, the bill has taken center stage in Trenton. It's the buzz among lawmakers who navigated the crush of the crowd at the nearly five-hour hearing and now face hard questions from the public.

Could the vote be around the corner?

"I'm hoping by end of the year," said Holley. "I hope we can start the new year off discussing other progressive ideas and hammer out other issues that are out there."