All eyes on legal weed ballot question, but insiders say other marijuana issues facing N.J.
Legal weed may be on hold in the Garden State until voters decide in November, but for cannabis industry insiders, the next nine months are stocked with opportunities and challenges.
More than 100 people gathered at Red Tank Brewing Company in Red Bank Wednesday evening to listen to state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, and other insiders talk the ballot question and the state’s medical marijuana program.
The event, hosted by NJ Cannabis Insider, was sponsored by Supreme Security Systems in Union. NJ Cannabis Insider is owned by NJ Advance Media, which also publishes content to NJ.com, The Star-Ledger and affiliated newspapers.
The state Legislature began working in 2018 to legalize marijuana, but twice fell short of the necessary support for the Senate to put it up for a vote. In November, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, announced lawmakers would stop pursuing the issue and instead vote to place in on the 2020 ballot, which they did late last year.
O’Scanlon supported legalization under certain conditions despite the fact that many Republicans did not, but shifted his position to instead favor a ballot question after the failed legislative attempts.
“I really was open minded at a time when I thought it was appropriate,” he said. “But we got to a point where I thought nope, it’s better to stick a fork in this and wait for referendum.”
O’Scanlon blamed insider Trenton politics for the collapse of the legislation. But he said waiting brings several benefits, like giving the medical program time to expand and address the needs there.
“It shouldn’t be harder to prescribe marijuana, cannabis, then it should be to prescribe any other medication,” he said. “We shouldn’t have this separate track as if cannabis is this evil substance, worse than opioids. Give me a break.”
O’Scanlon also said he favors the ballot question, which would subject marijuana to the state sales tax, a rate much lower than in states like Illinois and California. That, he hopes, will put the black market out of business.
As the Garden State waits to vote on the issue, O’Scanlon said he would “absolutely” support decriminalization, expungement and pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession offenses.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law last month that allows those convicted of possession offenses up to five pounds of marijuana to have their records expunged. But the plant remains illegal, and police continue to arrest nearly 100 people for pot offenses each day.
The governor has said he would support decriminalization legislation, and lawmakers began talks late last year to pass such a bill.
With legalization pushed back at least nine months, experts say the industry should begin joining forces and mobilizing to get the question passed.
“Every person in this room should figure out what the plan is for the coalition that needs to be built to get ready for this ballot question,” said Jackie Cornell, former Deputy Commissioner at the state Department of Health and chief of policy and health innovations at cannabis company 1906.
“We need to find a unified, coordinated way to speak and tackle all of these myths and slams that are going to come our way,” she continued. “We need to find a way to galvanize as one voice.”
Fruqan Mouzon, a cannabis attorney who spoke at the event, agreed.
“The absence of that movement is one of the reasons we couldn’t get it passed in the legislature,” he said.