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Will New Jersey See Legal Commercial Cannabis Sales This Year?

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By Chris Roberts

To see how swiftly and totally American attitudes have changed on marijuana, visit New Jersey.
For eight years, the state’s chief executive was Chris Christie, a man who thought campaigning for president on a promise to end Colorado’s experiment with marijuana legalization was a good idea. (It wasn’t.) Upon his return to work at the governor’s office, where for years he served as a reliable bulwark, blocking medical marijuana access during the height of an opiate-fueled overdose crisis, Christie described legal cannabis as a liberal plot to “poison our kids.”

New Jersey voters watched and listened, and then decided on the exact opposite. Christie’s replacement, Governor Phil Scott, who was sworn in to his role on Jan. 16, made a campaign promise to legalize marijuana “within 100 days” if he was elected.

And he hasn’t forgotten. During his inauguration speech earlier this week, Scott reiterated that his vision for a “stronger and fairer New Jersey” includes “a process to legalize marijuana.” Legalizing cannabis could raise as much as $300 million in tax revenue by 2020, according to one estimate, sweet music for a state dealing with a massive, unfunded pension liability.

Can Gov. Scott do it? Legally, no, he cannot — making laws is the job of the state legislature. (He has promised to sign whatever the legislature gives him, and within 100 days if they move that quickly.) And they just might do it. They are moving full speed ahead, with aggression and zeal not seen in other supposedly weed-friendly states like California and Colorado.

Bills introduced last year to legalize cannabis were scuttled largely due to Christie, who vowed to veto any marijuana-friendly bill lawmakers may present for his signature.

This year, lawmakers will debate and choose from at least two legalization proposals: One that would legalize cannabis for adults over 21, and another that would also do so — and would allow adults in New Jersey to purchase retail recreational cannabis as earlier as this year.

As NJ.com reported, State Senator Nicholas Scutari, legalization’s biggest advocate at the state capitol in Trenton, reintroduced a bill last week that would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis. Low-level marijuana offenses would be wiped from criminal records, a state enforcement agency would be created, and taxes would be collected — a situation nearly identical to those rolled out in Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, California and everywhere else adults can buy cannabis.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora plans to go even further. Scutari’s bill does not allot for home grow. Gusciora wants adults to be allowed to grow up to six plants at home, and plans to include that provision in a bill he says he’ll introduced before Feb. 1. Gusciora’s plan does put a hard cap on the number of dispensaries in New Jersey at 80, a feature that’s lead to complaints of monopolies and price-gouging in other states where government limits the size of the marijuana market.

The major difference between the two plans, NJ.com notes, is that under Gusciora’s plan, existing medical-marijuana dispensaries would be able to start accepting customers 21 and over without a doctor’s recommendation as soon as this year.

The trend is clear, and it’s towards more: More cannabis, more plants, more legalization — and quickly. For this, there may be an unlikely savior to thank. There’s speculation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s aggressive stance on cannabis has compelled states to move more quickly on legal cannabis. A similar phenomenon may be afoot in Jersey. If so: Thanks, Chris Christie!

Original Publication in Cannabis Now.