New Jersey lawmakers near vote on recreational cannabis

By MIKE CATALINI | Sun, March 24, 2019 10:25 EDT

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Lawmakers are poised to vote on making New Jersey the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

The Democrat-led Assembly and Senate have scheduled votes for Monday.

The vote, whose outcome remains unclear, comes after more than a year of mostly back-room wrangling since Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy came into office. Murphy campaigned on legalization, in contrast with his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie.

New Jersey would join the District of Columbia and 10 other states with legalized recreational use of the drug for adults if the vote succeeds.

Murphy supports the legislation and has been calling lawmakers seeking their support, according to his office.

Despite Democratic control of state government, the issue has divided legislators, with even some Democrats who supported the measure in committee saying they weren't committed to a yes vote on the floor.

A closer look at the New Jersey measure:

WHAT'S IN THE BILL?

The measure would allow for the sale and personal use of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and over. The drug would be taxed at $42 an ounce, with the ability for towns that host growers, processors, wholesalers or retailers to charge an additional tax of up to 3 percent in some cases.

The measure calls for setting up a five-person cannabis regulatory commission, which would set the ground rules and oversee marijuana regulation in New Jersey.

The governor would name three of the five full-time members, who would serve for five-year terms. The Assembly speaker and Senate president would name the other two members.

The proposal also calls for expungement of pending charges and prior marijuana-related convictions. Under the proposal, New Jersey would allow for the expungement of marijuana crimes for possession up to 5 pounds. Lawmakers acknowledge it sounds like a lot but say it's necessary in order to allow for an expedited expungement process, since the statute covering possession for small amounts of cannabis goes up to 5 pounds.

The measure also aims to incentivize women and minorities to participate in the legal marijuana market by requiring 30 percent of licenses go to these groups.

The bill also calls for an investigation on the influence of cannabis on driving and calls for funding drug-recognition experts for law enforcement.

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WHEN COULD YOU START USING RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA?

The bill says that it would be legal to possess up to an ounce as soon as the bill is enacted, but it would be longer until the legal marketplace is set up.

Medical marijuana facilities would be cleared to begin offering recreational cannabis soon after the bill passes but are required to keep enough product to serve patients first.

It could be about six months retail locations open since the commission would have to set guidelines.

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HOW DOES NEW JERSEY'S TAX COMPARE TO OTHER STATES'?

Lawmakers are proposing the $42 per-ounce tax, with towns permitted to tax more, up to 3 percent in the case of retailers.

Most states with recreational marijuana levy an excise tax as a percentage, though Alaska also levies a per-ounce tax, which is set at $50, according to a survey of tax rates by the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation.

New Jersey's lawmakers have said they're pursuing the flat rate as a way to guard against revenue fluctuations if the market price changes.

Medical marijuana in New Jersey is currently subjected to the state's 6.625 percent sales tax, but that's being phased out by 2024 under the pending legislation.

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