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Equity, Expungement, and Micro-businesses Expected in New Jersey Legalization Bill

New Jersey’s draft legalization bill could drop any day now.

Ahead of that release, Cannabis Wire talked with Meagan Glaser, the New Jersey deputy state director for Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), who eight years ago helped lead a group that pushed for New Jersey to enact its medical cannabis program.

Now, the DPA-led New Solutions Campaign, a broad coalition of New Jersey-based advocacy groups, is on the brink of helping enact a new law that would allow broad legal cannabis sales in the state.

The New Jersey coalition has focused on civil rights and an equitable approach to the cannabis industry. The political wind is at their back: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ran on legalizing cannabis during his 2017 campaign, framing it as a Civil Rights-era wrong.

That is the crux of the DPA’s long-held argument — that cannabis is a civil rights issue. And it’s why she believes her and the coalition’s advocacy on these issues have a good chance of shaping the new draft cannabis legalization bill.

“I definitely think at this point, it’s not if legalization is going to happen or even when, but more a matter of how it’s going to roll out,” Glaser told Cannabis Wire.

Cannabis industry groups also have a significant presence in the state Capitol in hopes of shaping the final legislation, including the NJ Cannabusiness Association, the NJ Cannabis Industry Association and the NJ Marijuana Retailers Association.

Advocates following the debate expect to see the draft bill this week, even though other informal deadlines have come and gone.

In an interview with Cannabis Wire, Glaser talked about New Jersey’s political landscape, how different groups have shaped the forthcoming bill, what the New Solutions coalition will be looking for, and why all eyes are on the lead senator on the bill, Nicholas P. Scutari, before the formal legislative process of hearings and floor debates begin.

(This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.)

Why do you think there’s so much energy behind cannabis legalization right now?

When Gov. Phil Murphy came into office, he made a promise that legalization would occur within his first 100 days in office, and while that deadline has been pushed back, there has been a lot of movement and discussion and focus on this issue. He’s continued to focus on it in his inauguration speech and even in his budget address. You also have the executive branch moving ahead on its own in terms of broadening medical access, and also there’s quite a bit of support in both the Senate and Assembly.

Who have you been working with in the Capitol?

In the Senate, it’s been Sen. Scutari, who has taken the lead. We’ve worked in the Assembly with Assemblyman Jamel Holley, who has proposed some amendments. They’re ironing out the details and basically going back and forth. We expect to see something new by the end of the week.

What will you and others be looking for in that draft that you pushed with those legislators?

The coalition is focused on fairness and equity because we want to see diversity in the industry. One big proposal is micro licenses, so that there are pathways for small business owners to enter the business without requirements for huge amounts of capital.

There should also be provisions that automatically and retroactively provide expungement for cannabis-related crimes and we also want to make sure to see a investment of marijuana tax revenue back into communities harmed by the drug wars. We are advocating for that community reinvestment and community justice model.

Last but certainly not least, it’s got to have civil penalties for activities that occur outside the new civil system. Especially for youth of color.

You mean civil penalties instead of criminal charges for marijuana-related crimes outside of the new system?

Yes. There’s been less attention paid to civil penalties and the reason we feel so strongly about that is when you look at the data from the other states, arrests have plummeted. Arrests have gone down post legalization, so it means were locking up fewer people of color, but you have seen an uptick of arrests in youth of color. At the school level, they will call the police instead of bring the parents in.

Then all you’re doing is giving younger people a lifetime of issues and a criminal record. We support adult-use and want youth protection, but another way to protect youth is to prevent them from getting swept up in arrests. That’s why we’re advocating for civil penalties.

Where have you seen the most pushback on these issues?

I think we’ve seen a lot of movement on the expungement issue. We had informational hearings on expungement, and the courts and others testified how difficult expungement would be basically because the technology is antiquated in the state. Automatic expungement is timely and costly — and we understand. But if the state found money to build jails and prisons and ruin people’s lives then we can find the money to make automatic expungement happen. I think the will is there.

Why have racial equity and civil rights issues become particularly central in New Jersey lately?

We’ve done a great job in New Jersey in terms of reducing our prison population. But we’re unfortunately known for having the greatest racial disparities in our criminal sentencing. When you drill down into the data, blacks are arrested at three times the rate of whites for marijuana crimes. The racial disparities speak volumes.

Gov. Murphy ran on a broader social justice issue platform on issues that a majority of New Jerseyans support. I definitely think his public support for marijuana was a part of that message and that package.

What have you seen from anti-cannabis groups?

The main group here in New Jersey is called New Jersey RAMP, Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, which is affiliated with the national Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) group. We’ve seen them oppose the bill. They’ve been lobbying at the local level to get municipalities to preemptively ban dispensaries in their town.

There’s been about 30 municipalities that have done that. It’s a small fraction; we have 565 municipalities.

For them to do that without seeing what the bill looks like is really premature. The bill may allow municipalities to apply a local tax. There’s revenue to be had to be reinvested.

Why does home cultivation appear to be off the table?

For us, we believe similar to alcohol there should be an allowance for small amounts of home cultivation just like there is home brewing. Home cultivation has been a piece of what we’ve been advocating for.

I think that the cannabis industry has a strong voice in New Jersey and I think they’ve advocated against home cultivation, so that they will have more market share. I think that’s a bit of a non-starter at this point. I’d be surprised if you see that included.

How big of a deal is that for your coalition or for medical patients who want to have access to their own cannabis?

I can tell you that most of the patients we’ve worked with and have led the medical campaign were too sickly in a lot of cases to grow their own. For us, it’s more about expanding access in other ways. We have six alternative treatment centers. Think about six CVS pharmacies in a state, what that would be like for patients. To be able to travel these long distances, it’s incredibly limiting in terms of access. An advocate /patient said she could get cherry- flavored morphine delivered to her doorstep but it was insane she couldn’t get her medical marijuana delivered.

One of the things they are considering with the medical marijuana expansion bill that is a part of the current legalization package is home delivery. So that would be a big improvement for patients here in New Jersey. And they’ve just opened up the request for proposal process again, and the Murphy administration is seeking six more alternative treatment centers right now. And I expect once the medical expansion bill and the legalization bill are finalized, I could see them open up the process even broader and not limit the number of dispensaries that we’ve seen under the previous Christie administration.

If folks can access quality product that’s regulated through dispensaries, I think that’s more important than home cultivation.

What is the difference between what you want and what industry groups want?

DPA is definitely leading the charge in terms of repairing the harms of the drug war in communities of color and making sure there is fairness and equity in the bill. Where we draw the line in the sand is going to be very different from a DPA perspective than an industry perspective.

When you look at what happens in other states in terms of it being an overwhelmingly white male industry, I think there’s lessons to be learned from those experiences and New Jersey is in a unique position to prevent against that.

I have seen certain industry groups pair up with some minority-founded organizations here in New Jersey. But certainly their focus is not on fairness and equity.

What comes next and what will you be looking for?

Right now everybody is waiting to see what the draft looks like. I think that from our standpoint it really will come down to whether these racial equity provisions are included or not. If there’s nothing that deals with expungement, if there’s no reinvestment of any portion of the tax revenue back into communities most harmed, those are going to be deal breakers for folks in our coalition.

There’s a lot of momentum. So hopefully we’ll see things moving quickly, but in the right direction.

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