NJ legislation would legalize marijuana, expand medical pot

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Recreational marijuana would be legalized and the medical cannabis program would be expanded under new legislation unveiled Friday in New Jersey.

The state is moving toward legalizing the drug under Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who while on the campaign trail promised to authorize recreational cannabis, but the Legislature has not moved on the issue beyond hearings and introducing legislation.

Murphy said Friday at an unrelated news conference in New Brunswick that he wants "to do both" recreational legalization and medical marijuana expansion, but he stopped short of supporting the new bills. He added that he's had "good dialogue" with lawmakers on the issue.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari announced the new bills just weeks ahead of a June 30 budget deadline that has upped the stakes since Murphy is banking on revenue from legalization to balance his fiscal 2019 spending pan.

"The legislation to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use would eliminate the draconian laws and penalties currently in place and improve social justice issues in urban areas," Scutari said. "Law-abiding adults will be able to partake legally and safely knowing exactly what they're ingesting."

Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Murphy says he backs legalization as a "social justice" issue and rejects critics' claims that he's eager only for new revenues for the cash-strapped budget.

His budget assumes $60 million in new revenues from the pending approval of recreational marijuana. That's much lower than the roughly $300 million revenue estimates that circulated around last year's election.

Under the legislation, people 21 and over could possess, buy, use or transport an ounce or less of marijuana. Towns retain the right to create their own ordinances governing sales, with a 180-day window to bar sales.

The bill calls for establishing a graduated tax rate on marijuana sales over several years, but the rates were not specified. A previous version of the bill called for escalating the tax rate from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years.

Another bill expands the state's medical marijuana program and allows any health-care practitioner permitted to prescribe controlled substances to write prescriptions. The sponsors say patients will not be required to go only to the dispensary where they are registered and could go to any treatment center.

Kevin Sabet, the founder of New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, which opposes legalization, said the "perceived" benefits of permitting recreational use would be outweighed by the negative consequences.

"Marijuana legalization brings a new Big Tobacco type industry to New Jersey that comes with a multitude of public health concerns," he said.

It's unclear whether the Democrat-led Assembly, which has been holding hearings across the state, approves of the bills.

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