N.J. marijuana bills would expand medical program, decriminalize small amounts

In this Friday, March 22, 2019, file photo, a marijuana plant is visible at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

In this Friday, March 22, 2019, file photo, a marijuana plant is visible at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

New Jersey would expand its medical marijuana program and overhaul the rules for expunging drug-related and other violations under a pair of bills approved by legislative committees on Monday.

Final votes on both measures could come as soon as Thursday, sending them to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who supports the policy goals but declined Monday to comment on the specific legislation.

A third bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana — changing it from a criminal to a civil offense — was also approved in an Assembly committee after being quietly introduced last Thursday. A companion bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

The flurry of action came a week after Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, declared the legislative effort to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use dead, a casualty of resistance from rank-and-file lawmakers and an intraparty fight with the governor over tax incentives.

Instead, Sweeney said lawmakers would try to put the legalization question before voters in November 2020 while moving forward with the medical marijuana and expungement bills.

Those measures have broad support in the Legislature but had previously been tied to the legalization bill in an attempt to win votes for the more controversial proposal.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program currently has about 45,000 registered patients served by six dispensaries. One of the bills approved Monday, A-10/S-10, seeks to expand those numbers by requiring the state to process applications for more dispensaries and allowing more types of medical professionals to refer patients to the program.

It will also make the program more user-friendly by allowing patients to purchase up to three ounces of marijuana a month, up from the current limit of two; phase out the sales tax on medical marijuana by 2025; permit home delivery; and give all patients access to edible products, not just minors.

“While the bill’s not perfect…it’s still light-years ahead of our present program,” state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said before voting in favor of the measure Monday.

The expungement bill, A-4498/S-3205, would create new processes for people hoping to erase old criminal convictions from their records. For those with a limited number of offenses, it would expedite the timeline for getting those cleared.

And it would allow anyone at least 10 years removed from their most recent conviction, fine, completion of probation or parole, or release from prison to apply for what the bill refers to as a “clean slate.”

More than 200,000 people would be eligible for expungements under the measure, Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, a bill sponsor, said in a statement.

The inclusion of a third bill, A-5325, on Monday’s agenda caught many Trenton observers off guard. Despite long-standing opposition to marijuana decriminalization by legislative leaders, the bill would effectively do just that.

Possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would be subject to a civil fine of $50 under the bill, while other weed-related offenses would remain crimes but with lesser punishments.

Under current law, possession of small amounts of marijuana defined as up to 50 grams, or slightly less than two ounces — is a fourth-degree crime subject to up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The measure would also allow people with marijuana convictions to apply for expedited expungement.

A spokesman for Sweeney did not immediately respond to questions about whether the Senate president supports the bill and would allow it to move forward in his chamber.

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