Legislative panel OKs recreational marijuana bill, other cannabis bills

A package of bills that would legalize the personal use of marijuana, expand medical marijuana use and address expungement of marijuana possession and use convictions passed a joint Senate and Assembly committee Monday after hours of testimony on the topic.

The recreational legalization bill passed the joint committee and will next be voted on in both full houses of the Legislature. But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) indicated the bills may not be voted on by the end of the year, because a consensus must be reached with the governor before the bills could be put on the voting board for the Legislature’s final session of 2018, on Dec. 17.

One of the biggest issues for those focused on the workplace impact was how the bill affects the ability to penalize employees who are high on the job.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), chair of the Senate Budget committee, said the new law would not supplant existing federal law that requires construction and other industries to test for use on the job.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association was pushing for employers to maintain having a drug-free workplace policy, and lobbied for amendments in the medical marijuana bills to reflect as much.

The amendments were passed Monday.

“Prior to today, the adult-use draft legislation appeared to have the employers’ rights provisions that we were looking for that preserved the employers’ rights to have those policies and to enforce them,” said NJBIA Vice President Michael Wallace. “The medical bills had conflicting provisions in the bill, so we were able to work with (the) chairman (Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge) to make some amendments to the medical bill.”

This, he said, was to help deter employees from coming high to work, despite use being legalized.

“Officially, we haven’t taken a position on either of the bills,” Wallace said about both personal use legalization and medical marijuana expansion.

The ACLU of New Jersey supported the marijuana bills, but focused on a key concern of many employers — there is no way to test for use on the job.

“We do expect employers to reduce their reliance on testing for THC in their employees,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel at the ACLUNJ.

She said employers in states that have passed legalization have, in fact, reduced testing.

“They understand that it is legal behavior for their employees to engage in; a test does not indicate whether or not your employee is intoxicated or if they used cannabis on the weekend on their off time. Employees will always have to use their judgment and make decisions on what the risks are if they use cannabis. But that’s already the case now, so none of that changes.”

Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Moorestown), who voted “yes” on passage of the bills, said it was time to stop claiming success on the war on drugs, and cited information from the RAND Corp. that the drug cartels still collect significant revenues off of marijuana.

“The ubiquitous claim that 60 percent of Mexican (drug) export revenues come from U.S. marijuana consumption should not be taken seriously. No publicly available source verifies or explains this figure and subsequent analyses revealed great uncertainty about the estimate,” according to a RAND publication in 2010. “Our analysis — though preliminary on this point — suggests that 15-26 percent is a more credible range of the share of drug export revenues attributable to marijuana.”

Sweeney said the timeline after Monday is unclear.

Out of 18 concerns the governor has expressed to the Legislature, Sweeney said, “We gave them 16.”

A medical marijuana bill, which expanded the uses of medical marijuana, and will change the way businesses can form — from solely nonprofit to a number of options, including partnerships with for-profits — passed unanimously.

Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden), who has been sponsoring legislation on legalization that went nowhere for more than a decade, had a chance to express enthusiasm after the bill passed out of committee.

“I think today is a really historic day for the state of New Jersey. It’s a momentous day,” he said. “I think the travesty of justice that has been going on for the past 100 years, the sea change is starting to correct itself, and we look forward to passage on the full Assembly and Senate floors.”

Sweeney agreed.

“It’s time we come into the 21st century,” he said.

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