TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s path to potentially legal recreational marijuana could take a turn soon with a legislative hearing scheduled, though legislators are expressing caution over the legalization, a key campaign promise of Gov. Phil Murphy.
The Assembly Oversight Committee is set to hear from experts Monday on cannabis legalization, the first action taken in the Assembly on marijuana since new Democratic Speaker Craig Coughlin took over leadership of the chamber this year.
“I’m going to let the committee do its work and I’m going to look at what they’ve done. Certainly on my own I’ll start to look at the issue and do what we can to get it right,” Coughlin said.
Monday’s hearing comes as the Democratic Murphy is drafting his first budget, which he will unveil later this month, and as he tries to make good on promises to ramp up education and pension spending. Murphy has estimated that marijuana legalization could bring in roughly $300 million in revenue for the state. That’s just a fraction of what he would need to finance his proposals, though the governor cautions that he won’t fulfill his pledges “overnight.”
Murphy made no mention of the campaign pledge to legalize marijuana during an address to the state’s business and political community Thursday in Washington.
The issue was the talk of the state Chamber of Commerce’s annual trip to Washington, where lobbyists, politicians and entrepreneurs pack an Amtrak train to talk shop. Among lawmakers, legalization got a tepid response. Some Democrats stopped short of backing legalization.
“I’m still researching it,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano. State Sen. Bob Gordon, a Democrat, said he’s a no, for now. Republicans look reluctant to get on board. Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. is opposed.
Other lawmakers, particularly Democratic state Sen. Ron Rice, are raising concerns. Rice says he favors decriminalization instead of full legalization.
Scott Rudder, who supports legalization and heads the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said he’s optimistic that lawmakers will come around.
And at least one influential Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation for legalization.
The legislation is identical to a measure introduced in the previous session that legalizes the recreational use of marijuana for those at least 21. It permits possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form, 7 grams of concentrate and up to six immature plants.
The legislation would establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, charged with regulating the industry. The legislation also would establish a sales tax on marijuana that would rise incrementally from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years to encourage early participation, Scutari said.
The public’s view of legalization seems mixed. A February Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll showed 42 percent favor legalization, while roughly equal percentages of people backed either the status quo or only decriminalization. That poll surveyed 801 New Jersey residents and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
A September 2017 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59 percent of residents approved of marijuana legalization. The poll surveyed 1,121 voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. New Jersey has a medical marijuana program that Murphy has said he wants to expand.