Trenton’s Cannabis Clown Car Stalled Out. Again.

Scutari and O'Scanlan.

I’m running out of superlatives to describe the NJ legislature’s handling of cannabis reform, an effort that stalled yet again this week.  NJ voters legalized recreational cannabis by a 2-to-1 margin last November and Trenton lawmakers are struggling to carry out the will of the people.

The latest aborted attempt just to move the needle towards legal cannabis sales again proves Trenton’s lack of conviction on matters that NJ voters care about. This week’s bill was pulled from consideration, presumably because it lacked the votes. Democrats are still tripping over themselves to divvy up the presumed windfall that should accompany the legalization of recreational cannabis.

And that’s the rub.

Democratic Senator Nick Scutari is NJ’s self-appointed pot sherpa. He favors a legalization model that’s extremely friendly to big companies at the expense of NJ consumers. There are no provisions for homegrown cannabis making NJ an outlier nationally. So cannabis will only be legal when purchased at a dispensary with the connections and the juice to score a license. It’s a pot lobbyist’s wildest fantasy come true.

In Scutari’s model, out-of-state based licensees are the big winners and we know this because we have eyes and we saw what happened with medical cannabis.

That corporate approach runs contrary to the strong impulse to earmark cannabis revenues for communities most harmed by the war on drugs. And that conflict has the Dems tied up in knots.

Statehouse Democrats often leverage their overwhelming majorities to advance legislation when it suits them. But since cannabis apparently isn’t one of those things, it might take some GOP votes to get this over the finish line.

Republicans who still hold retrograde views on cannabis (ie: most of them) will always vote no. Other GOP lawmakers take a dim view because, frankly, Scutari’s bill has some serious flaws.

NJ Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) has tried to nudge NJ’s cannabis debate out of Crazytown since joining a NJ delegation that trekked out to Colorado back in 2016 to study their legalization journey. (see pic)

I covered that junket for Leafly.

“You were on that trip to Colorado and they told us ‘don’t make the mistake of overtaxing,’” Senator O’Scanlon told InsiderNJ. “You can’t (tax) above 25% if you want to beat the black market, better yet 15% which would really hammer the illicit market. And so job #1 should be to destroy the illicit market.”

Senator O’Scanlon was especially focused on the language of a referendum that changed our constitution.

“The language on the ballot was clear: only taxes on retail sales and some transfer taxes at the cultivator level are permitted. Excise tax is contrary to the ballot question which was specific about low taxes.”

And so all these extra fees and taxes for sympathetic causes mean zero support from the GOP, even from the Republicans like O’Scanlon. Right now, NJ democrats, fighting amongst themselves, don’t have the luxury of ignoring GOP demands at this point.

Especially the extremely reasonable ones.

“I’ve long been an advocate for a medical home-grow pilot program,” O’Scanlon told InsiderNJ, proving the point. “The fact we haven’t done that yet? C’mon!!! We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work in other states. This should be straightforward, particularly for patients who can’t afford the expensive products (in NJ dispensaries.)”

(Patients like myself, for example.)

NJ Senator Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) occupies the Trumpier segment of the NJ political continuum. He was a hard “no” on legalization as NJ’s newest state senator. But when voters rendered their decisive cannabis verdict he changed course because that’s what voters in his district demanded.

It’s an evolution he described earlier this month.

“This bill should be far more streamlined to reflect what New Jersey voters actually voted on.” Senator Testa told InsiderNJ, echoing O’Scanlon’s critique of extra taxes and fees.

A cursory glance at Testa’s track record reveals a conservative who’s generally opposed to more taxes on principle. He pointed out that his South Jersey District includes Vineland and Millville, so-called Impact Zones disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. Testa fears not only taxes beyond the scope of the referendum, but that those so-called “dedicated funds” won’t make it back to places like Vineland and Millville.

“You do not need to look far to see the chronic mismanagement of dedicated funds,” Testa said. “New Jersey collects close to $124 million annually in fees from landline and cellular telephone customers. Those fees are placed in the “9-1-1 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund Account.” Yet, since 2006, the State has diverted nearly 90 percent of the collected fees – more than $1.4 billion – from the fund.”

We don’t have a crystal ball. And so we look to Trenton’s track record. Which is really bad.

So in conclusion, here’s where we’ve stalled in New Jersey:

  • Still locking up people for weed every day.
  • Sick people still endure long lines in freezing weather to pay $500 for an ounce of medicine.
  •  Can’t afford NJ pot? Too Bad! Because penalties for growing your own are “draconian,” up to 20 years in prison for a few plants.
  • NJ Governor Murphy-aligned attorneys and mega-donors are in court right now fighting over dispensary licenses.
  •  The expungement of low-level, non-violent pot crimes remains unresolved.

Neglecting expungement language at this point is beyond scandalous, especially for  white Democrats who squawk about social justice when cameras are rolling.

Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster who gets his cannabis from the black market. 

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