N.J. weed bill on hold as social justice advocates push for ‘justice’

All that was left was to set up the marketplace for recreational marijuana. Many say they were dismayed by lawmakers’ first try at enabling legislation.

Marijuana buds are seen in a prescription bottle

File photo: Marijuana buds are seen in a prescription bottle as they are sorted at Compassionate Care Foundation's grow house, Friday, March 22, 2019, in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

When New Jersey voters opted to legalize recreational marijuana by a 2-to-1 margin last week, all that was left to do was set up the new marketplace.

But social justice advocates say they were dismayed by lawmakers’ first attempt at enabling legislation, which was pulled this week amid criticism.

“The bill that was introduced was an egregious, audacious, insidious white man money grab,” said Charles Boyer, director of the group Salvation and Social Justice and pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury.

The legislation (S-21/A-21), which passed committees in the Senate and Assembly on Monday but has since been put on hold, levied the sales tax on recreational marijuana sales and allowed municipalities to impose another local tax up to 2%. But it did not include an excise tax by weight, which proponents say would raise a steady stream of revenue.

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The proposal also used the tax revenue from weed sales to fund the state’s marijuana regulatory commission and pay for increased police training, but it did not expressly send any money to the Black and Latino communities most seriously affected by low-level drug laws.

“Justice and repair is not you punching me in the face and then just stop punching me in the face,” said Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Justice is fixing my face.”

A Black resident is more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white New Jerseyan, despite similar rates of usage.

In a joint statement, Senate President Steve Sweeney; Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union; and Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said after a Monday hearing on the bill that recreational marijuana tax revenues should go to communities most impacted by systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

“Those drug laws, with their mandatory minimum sentences, destroyed the lives of too many people of color, and we need to ensure that those new revenues are dedicated where they can do the most good to revitalize our communities,” the statement read.

Separately, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a tweet that he supports an “additional user fee” on recreational weed sales.

But for now, the fate of the legislation that will lay the groundwork for New Jersey’s new recreational marijuana market is unclear, and the bill has been pulled from scheduled floor votes in the Senate and Assembly next week.

Committees in both chambers approved a separate bill to decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of marijuana. That legislation would effectively halt arrests for minor possession charges while lawmakers continue to work on the enabling legislation, since the state’s current drug laws apply even after the passage of the constitutional amendment last week.

McKoy said a $42-per-ounce excise tax, which was in a previous marijuana legalization bill that failed to gain enough support in the legislature, could raise triple the amount of revenue as the legislation floated this week.

Boyer also criticized the number of licenses set aside for Black and Latino communities in the bill, and suggested that more opportunities to enter the new market be provided for people in affected communities, as well as for people with criminal records for low-level drug convictions.

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