New Jersey took a step Monday toward legalizing recreational marijuana as lawmakers advanced a measure allowing adults to use cannabis after hours of delay and back-room wrangling over the measure that irritated witnesses and some legislators.
Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate legislative committees advanced the legislation late Monday despite having scheduled a hearing earlier in the day on the agreement that Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders announced last week.
In the Senate, the judiciary committee heard no testimony from witnesses, with lawmakers pointing to earlier hearings on legalization. In the Assembly, legislators admonished witnesses to keep their comments brief despite the long delay and the late publication of changes to the deal.
The exchanges got testy at times.
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"This bill is wrong for the state," said Gregory Quinlan, founder and president of Garden State Families and an opponent of legalization. "I can't comment on amendments I haven't seen."
Democratic Assembly appropriations committee chairman John Burzichelli told Quinlan that his voice was heard and that many in the state supported legalization.
"Thank you for the lecture," Quinlan said.
The Senate hearing started with Republican state Sen. Gerald Cardinale questioning how some Democratic lawmakers were permitted to be recorded as present despite having left earlier in the day.
Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who chairs the judiciary committee, said the members had reviewed the measure and were ruled present "for purposes of the committee."
Republican state Sen. Kip Bateman said lawmakers had seen changes to the legalization measure and sought a delayed vote for time to review legislation, but Scutari said the committee would go forward.
New Jersey would join the District of Columbia and 10 states if the measure becomes law.
The bill lawmakers voted on Monday contained many of the same details Murphy announced, according to a statement prepared by committee staffers, including a $42 an ounce tax. Most states with recreational marijuana levy taxes as a percentage of sales, but New Jersey would join Alaska in levying a per-ounce tax, according to the nonprofit Tax Foundation.
The bill also includes the ability for towns to impose taxes of up to 3 percent in some cases.
Legislators said in a statement Monday that the money from tax revenue would go into a fund for "development, regulations, and enforcement of cannabis activities," including paying for expungement costs. The balance would go to the general fund.
But legislators also unveiled additional details on making expunging marijuana convictions easier, like the dismissal of pending charges and expungement of convictions for possession of up to five pounds of cannabis.
That unsettled some legislators.
Republican state Sen. Michael Doherty said the change seemed to permit felons, and not just low-level offenders, to qualify for expungement. Most people weren't aware of that change until Monday, Doherty said.
Cardinale added: "Some of the worst people in our society are going to be getting a clean record."
The measure would also speed up a "virtual expungement" system aimed at relieving obstacles for clearing past offenses. The measure also sets up a five-person commission to regulate marijuana, with three members appointed by the governor and one apiece by the Assembly Speaker and Senate President.
The legislation goes next to the floor in both chambers, but it's unclear whether there are enough votes for the measure to succeed and make it to Murphy's desk.