Legal marijuana battles shift to town halls and Congress
Marijuana legalization in New Jersey was hardly the end of the debate – with Congress discussing legalization or at least banking rules, some in the state Legislature advocating for home grow and municipalities now on the clock to decide whether to allow or prevent dispensaries.
Questions regarding what comes next in the legalization drive were analyzed last week in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey forum and a meeting of the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which took public testimony for the first time.
Hightstown Councilwoman Cristina Fowler wants the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to clarify whether municipalities can reconsider once the vote to ban pot shops.
“If we opt out, do we have the ability to opt back in at any time, or are we committed to that decision for the following five years?” said Fowler, who also wanted details about the role drug-free school zones will play in determining dispensary locations.
Jorge Vasquez Jr., a program director for the Advancement Project, said towns have liquor stores and bars and predicts they will ultimately come around on marijuana.
“Once they see how much money their counties or their town is losing from these bans, we’re going to see that they’re going to change,” Vasquez said.
Despite receiving approval from two-thirds of voters last November, Cannabis Regulatory Commission chair Dianna Houneou said some officials are holding onto a ‘war on drugs’ mentality, writing bans even before knowing what the regulations will look like.
“Thinking that drug use and drug availability is inherently going to bring down property values and result in, like, chaos and mayhem and anarchy, and it’s just not true,” Houneou said.
Houneou urged people to show up at municipal council meetings to let local officials know “pseudo-redlining” will not be tolerated.
The CRC is still in its earliest stages but has begun discussion of what will be among its first actions – adopting interim standards for third-party labs that test products for things such as contamination, pesticides or heavy metals.
The commission is still taking public input on the interim standards and hasn’t yet settled on the rules, which will be in place until Jersey-specific standards are developed. Executive director Jeff Brown said temporarily, it should use Massachusetts or Maryland rules.
“While there are many states that have done a tremendous job with third-party lab regulations, I think these align very closely with the statutory provisions in Jake Honig’s Law and in the law signed earlier this year for broader legalization,” Brown said.
Marijuana legalization puts New Jersey out of compliance with federal law – along with other states home to 40% of the U.S. population. A bill legalizing the drug federally passed in the House last year but not the Senate, where the latest version of the decriminalization plan is expected to be unveiled soon.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said fellow senators literally snickered at him when he first proposed marijuana legislation that included restorative justice provisions.
“But this marijuana justice act, every Congress has been getting a little more popular,” said Booker, who said the current bill is being developed with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
In the short term, the bill’s chances don’t look great. The MORE Act would need 10 Republican votes, even if it enjoyed unanimous support among Democrats – which it doesn’t appear to have, at least not yet.
“I just need more activism, more pressure,” Booker said. “I’m going to do everything I can to cobble together the 60 votes necessary – unless, of course, we somehow get rid of the filibuster, which would be wonderful.”