Latest NJ cannabis bill advances, prioritizes Jersey City, Newark businesses

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The Garden State’s slow slog toward the legalization of recreational marijuana appears to have a final bill set for a vote that heavily addresses social justice issues, and the legislation could have some significant benefits for four of the state’s largest cities.

Late last month, committees for both the state’s Senate and Assembly voted in favor of advancing a modified version of what’s been dubbed the Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act. The wide-ranging bill would legalize recreational marijuana for people at least 21 years old, creating and regulating a 12 percent tax on the commercial cannabis industry in the state.

The legislation would set up the Division of Marijuana Enforcement within the existing Department of Law and Public Safety and create a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission, whose members would be appointed by the governor. One of the bill’s stated goals is to address the disproportionate impact marijuana arrests have historically had on minority communities.

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To help facilitate social change, the commission will give preference to cannabis business who apply for licenses in what the bill labels “impact zones,” which are defined as areas “for which past criminal marijuana enterprises contributed to higher concentrations of law enforcement activity, unemployment, and poverty.” An impact zone must have a population at least 120,000 people, a high crime index as measured by the State Police, an annual average unemployment rate of 15 percent, and rank in the top 33 percent for marijuana- or hashish-related arrests.

Based on data from the U.S. Census, Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth would qualify as impact zones under the bill. Other possible benefits for New Jersey’s cities include the creation of an Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans, and Women Cannabis Business Development, which aims “to promote entrepreneurship” from socially and economically disadvantaged communities. Additionally, as many as 25 percent of the state’s cannabis licenses would be set aside for minorities who live in the state so that they can open micro-businesses in the industry.

The bill would make consumption lounges and home deliveries of marijuana legal with certain restrictions, and an extra 2 percent excise tax could be enacted by towns which host cannabis businesses. The reaction to legal pot in New Jersey’s most densely populated areas has been somewhat mixed so far; Union City has already banned marijuana sales, while Jersey City attempted to decriminalize marijuana possession before the state’s Attorney General ended those hopes. Hoboken is currently weighing an ordinance regulating where pot shops could set up.

Some developers have big plans for legal weed in Jersey City, and Mayor Fulop has been supportive of statewide legalization. However, Jersey City does not currently have any cannabis ordinances on the books and would need to enact local regulations if the state moves to legalize.

When exactly that could happen is somewhat unclear. Governor Phil Murphy has long advocated for marijuana legalization but hasn’t committed to supporting the current legislation. Nonetheless, a final vote on the pending bill could take place on December 17, when the state Senate and Assembly next meet.

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