Cannabis in New Jersey
Cannabis in New Jersey is illegal for recreational use, but permitted for medical use. Legislation to legalize the recreational use is pending in the state legislature.
In 2013, New Jersey police made 24,765 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the highest in two decades. The number of 2013 arrests was double that of 1993, when the state’s population was smaller. The spike in arrest rates was at odds with the national trend, beginning in 2007, that saw a decline in arrests for marijuana possession.
The maximum penalty for simple possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana is six months in jail and a fine. Few first-time offenders serve jail time.
Marijuana reform advocacy
A report by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and New Jersey Policy Perspective, issued in 2016, concluded that if New Jersey legalized marijuana, it could generate about $300 million a year in sales tax revenue for the state. (The report assumed a sales tax of 25% and annual in-state marijuana sales of $1.2 billion.)
Perennial candidate Ed Forchion —known as “NJ Weedman”—has been described by NJ.com as “one of New Jersey’s best known marijuana legalization advocates.” Since the 1990s, Forchion has agitated for marijuana-law reform in the state. In 2004, Forchion lost a bid to legally change his name to “NJ Weedman” after prosecutors intervened. Forchion has been convicted of violating New Jersey’s marijuana laws several times; in 2015, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, affirmed one of his convictions, rejecting Forchion’s contention that the criminalization of marijuana violated his constitutional rights under the state and federal constitutions.
In 2015, Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics conducted a public opinion poll of New Jerseyans, asking whether they supported legalizing, taxing, and regulating the use of marijuana. Among respondents, 33% “strongly supported” the idea, 26% “somewhat supported” the idea, 12% “somewhat opposed” the idea, and 27% “strongly opposed” the idea. A Reuters-Eagleton poll in 2018 showed similar results, with 58% supporting and 37% opposing the complete legalization of “the possession and personal use of recreational marijuana.”
On January 18, 2010, amidst a “flurry of bills” he signed on his final day in office, outgoing governor Jon Corzine signed into law S. 119, the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, permitting the use of medical cannabis for persons with listed conditions: cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorder, Lou Gerhig’s disease, severe muscle spasms, muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and any terminal illness (defined as an illness for which a physician certifies that the patient will die within one year). The law allows the New Jersey health department to create rules to add other illnesses to the list. The law does not allow patients to grow their own marijuana; instead, the plant must be acquired through “alternate treatment centers” licensed by the state. Caregivers for patients are permitted to collect marijuana on behalf of the patient, but the caregiver must be designated and cleared by a criminal background check.
Enrollment in the medical marijuana program is small, which has been attributed to costs, the rigid limitations of the program, and “the small number of doctors willing to recommend patients,” as well as resistance to the program by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who in 2014 called the medical program a “front for legalization” of marijuana. In 2011, New Jersey was described as having the strictest medical marijuana law among the 16 states that at the time permitted medical marijuana.
In 2013, the parents of a two-year-old with Dravet’s syndrome confronted Christie, who signed a bill allowing access for sick children to medical marijuana in what was later dubbed the “pot for tots” controversy.
As of 2015, 5,540 patients were registered as part of the program, along with 355 caregivers authorized to buy on behalf of ill patients. As of 2017, there were 11,659 qualified patients in the state, mostly adults.
Under New Jersey’s medical-marijuana law, up to a maximum of six alternate treatment centers receive contracts from the state. These centers, which must be nonprofit, have the exclusive right to produce and sell medical marijuana in New Jersey. The first dispensary opened in December 2012 in Montclair. By October 2015, four additional centers had opened, in Egg Harbor Township, Woodbridge, Bellmawr, and Cranbury. In July 2017, the state issued a sixth and final permit, to the non-profit Harmony Foundation, allowing it to cultivate marijuana in Secaucus; after receiving an additional permit, Harmony opened a dispensary in Secaucus in June 2018.
Christie has generally opposed efforts by advocates and legislators to add new illnesses to the list of qualifying conditions, but nevertheless in 2016 Christie signed into law a measure, sponsored by state Senator Joseph Vitale, that added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of disorders making a patient eligible for the program.
In 2017, the state Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel, in a 5–1 vote, recommended that a number of conditions be added to the list of medical marijuana-qualifying conditions in New Jersey, including migraines, Tourette syndrome, autism-related anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease-related anxiety, as well as chronic pain if “related to a broad range of ailments, including opioid use disorder, arthritis, back and neck pain, sciatica, diabetes, surgeries, injuries, neuropathy, Lyme disease, lupus, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis, and others.” However, the Review Panel rejected proposals to add asthma and chronic fatigue to the list. The final determination on additions to the list is made by the state Health Commissioner.
2017–2019 proposals on legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana and expansion of medical marijuana
In May 2017, state Senator Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Union, introduced legislation to legalize marijuana in New Jersey for recreational purposes. Under Scutari’s proposal, adults aged 21 and over in the state would be able to legally consume marijuana and to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana flower, plus 16 ounces of solid cannabis-infused products (i.e., edibles); 72 ounces of “liquid marijuana tinctures, drinks and oils,” and seven grams of marijuana concentrate. A state sales tax on marijuana products would go from 7% in the first year to 10% in the second year, progressively rising by 5% per year until the tax level reached 25%. “Unlike all of the eight states that already host recreational marijuana programs, New Jersey would not allow home cultivation.” Christie strongly opposed any legalization of marijuana, calling the legislation “beyond stupidity” and “nothing more than crazy liberals who want to say everything’s OK,” and said that he would veto any legalization bill.
In 2018, after Christie left office, the Democratic-controlled state legislature again considered the Scutari legalization bill. However “at least 15 competing marijuana bills, each with a different flavor and vision, have been proposed in the Assembly.” Current governor Phil Murphy supports legalization, and has vowed to sign a legalization bill in a bid to raise $1.3 billion in revenue. Murphy promised to legalize recreational marijuana within the first 100 days of his administration, but a bill has not reached the floor of either chamber of the legislature, due to ongoing committee consideration and a lack of consensus among legislators.
Although a legalization bill has not yet passed the state legislature, in 2018 a number of municipal governments in New Jersey, enacted legislation in anticipation of legalization that would ban or restrict marijuana sales and use within those municipalities, including Freehold Township, Oceanport, Hazlet, Middletown Township, Brick, and Toms River. Freehold, for example, banned the sale of all marijuana (recreational or medical), while Oakland banned “retail stores, cultivation facilities, manufacturing, testing, social clubs, cultivation, possession, storing, testing, labeling, transport, delivery, dispensing and distribution” but exempted medical marijuana dispensaries and use.
Scutari introduced new legislation to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for recreational purposes, the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act, on June 7, 2018. Stephen M. Sweeney is a consponsor. In November 2018, a joint panel of the New Jersey Legislature (composed of assemblymembers and senators) passed S-2703, as well as separate legislation to expand access to medical marijuana (S-10) and to expand the state’s expungement process, including for drug offenses (S-3205). Under S-2703, the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and the consumption of marijuana in the home or designated areas would be become legal; a 12% state sales tax on marijuana would be imposed; and New Jersey municipalities would be given the power to choose to levy an additional 2% tax. Under S-10, edible forms of marijuana would be legalized for adult medical use; patients enrolled in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program could possess up to 3 ounces (an increase from two ounces); and the permitting process for medical marijuana dispensaries, manufacturers, and cultivators would be expedited.
The progress of the legalization bill has been slowed by legislative gridlock. Governor Murphy and Senate President Sweeney agree that marijuana should be legalized, but disagree on details. Because a small number of state Senate Democrats oppose legalization, the proponents of the legislation are believed to need “the support of nearly every other Democrat and possibly some Republicans” in order to secure passage. Negotiations in December 2018 and January 2019 focused on the tax rate for marijuana sales and regulatory oversight.
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