New Jersey’s Senate and Assembly both voted on Thursday to pass legislation to implement the adult use cannabis legalization initiative that voters passed on Election Day. Now, the legislation heads to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who supports legalization, for his signature.
The Assembly passed its version 49-24, with 6 abstentions. The Senate passed its version 23-17.
The legalization bills were delayed amid debate over equity and employer drug testing. Earlier this month, the Senate and Assembly negotiated compromise legislation that caps cultivation licenses at 37 for the first 24 months and sends 70% of cannabis sales tax revenue, and 100% of the “Social Equity Excise Fees” on cultivators, to “impact zones,” or areas disproportionately affected by enforcement of cannabis laws. The remaining 30% would go toward law enforcement efforts, like Drug Recognition Expert training.
In the Senate on Thursday, discussion returned to employer protections, with some lawmakers expressing concern that safety sensitive employers would not be able to enforce a drug-free workplace. Additionally, some lawmakers thought that the legislation didn’t go far enough to support social justice efforts.
Senator Nicholas Scutari, a longtime advocate for cannabis law reform, said that he “dreamed” of giving a speech during the final legalization vote for years.
“I feel that nothing will have a greater impact that we’ve done, or that I’ve done in my career in the legislature,” Scutari said. “Not just in business opportunities, or in job creation, but more importantly, the arrests, the criminal justice system, the things that we won’t see anymore, the opportunities that people will have that they would not have had, had we not made these changes.”
Support for the legalization implementation bill, broadly, fell down to party lines, with Democrats in favor, and Republicans in opposition. Senator Robert Singer, for example, said “this is a sad day.”
Senator Steven Oroho said that the retail cannabis bill “will just embolden the black market because probably the black market will be at a lower price,” and he called for better cannabis impairment testing, because “we have many industries that need to have a zero tolerance policy.”
Scutari countered that lawmakers worked carefully on language related to employment restrictions and safeguards, and pivoted to a point he has reiterated throughout the cannabis-related hearings: if the implementation legislation isn’t immediately passed, the state will face a “constitutional crisis.”
“I don’t think our members understand the constitutional crisis that’s facing us on January 1st if we don’t adopt these rules and regulations. Anybody that’s involved in law and order knows we need law and we need order,” Scutari said.
At one point, Scutari raised his voice after Senator Ronald Rice criticized the final bill for falling short on social justice.
“Where have you been all of these years,” Scutari said. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You haven’t done a thing for your community.” Senate President Steve Sweeney threatened to mute Scutari if he didn’t back down.
Senator Teresa Ruiz addressed Senator Robert Singer’s comment referencing impact zones as “money pits.”
“Let me remind people, ‘impact zones’ are described as my community, the city of Newark, one of the most disenfranchised areas that has been compounded by the so-called war on drugs,” Ruiz said.