DOH MEDICAL MARIJUANA EXPANSION SET FOR COLLISION COURSE WITH THE LEGISLATURE

These days we are reminded daily of the growing pervasiveness of the combat sport affectionately known as Trenton Politics.   These high level and demonstrably public squabbles include, but are most-assuredly not limited to, whether to impose additional taxes on those making over seven figures, the extent to which the identity of donors to so-called “dark money” groups should be disclosed, and whether the state should reduce spending on public employee benefits. Also tied up in the overtly quarrelsome atmosphere of Trenton politics is how to expand New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program to cover a shortening supply. 

Despite having previously kept the medical marijuana legislation closely tied to recreational use and liberal social justice reforms, the Legislature has recently agreed to remove the tether and allow these issues to be considered separately.  It endeavored to quickly move the medical marijuana legislation through both houses, and allow the public to vote on legalization for recreational use. 

The resulting bill is comprehensive.  Notably, the legislation calls for the creation of a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission in, but not of, the Department of Treasury.  This Commission would be charged with overseeing the licensing and regulation of cannabis for patients with diagnosed illnesses such as opioid use disorder, glaucoma, anxiety, inflammatory bowel disease, Tourette’s syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and others. The bill establishes an Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans, and Women Medical Cannabis Business Development and contains an aspirational goal of having 30% of the market participants consist of members of those groups.  It also would make it unlawful to discriminate against medical marijuana prescription holders in employment, housing, education, and child custody.  Further, the bill sets clear testing standards for medical cannabis and cannabis products and requires the Commission to provide an annual report to the Governor and Legislature detailing, among other things, the number of applications received, the number of applications rejected, motor vehicle stops related to marijuana and statistics on the racial, gender, ethnic and age breakdown of those who continue to be arrested for marijuana offenses.      

After several technical amendments, the bill passed the Senate on May 30th.  The Assembly is set to vote on the bill Monday, June 10th and, by all indications, will pass it by a large margin.  It could therefore be on the Governor’s desk for his consideration as early as that same day.  The Governor and the Department of Health (DOH), however, chose not to wait until the bill made it through the Legislature before responding to the legislative initiative.  Rather than wait the extra week, on June 3rd, the DOH issued a Request for Applications (RFA) announcing plans to begin accepting applications on July 1st for thirty-eight new medical cannabis establishments in North Jersey, the same number in Central Jersey and thirty-two in the Southern part of the State.

Obviously, the DOH could not condense a massive 130-page piece of legislation into a 12-page RFA.  The question thus becomes: does the Governor go along with the clearly well-thought out plan of the Legislature and sign the bill or does he go it alone?   Will this bill just become yet another pawn in the chess match underway between the Governor and the Legislature?  And, if the Governor decides NOT to sign the bill, does the Legislature have the political will to muster up 27 votes in the Senate and 54 votes in the Assembly and override the veto?  Some would say, if there was ever an occasion for the Legislature to override the Governor, it is when the question before them is whether to allow the Governor to ignore their work.  

Weighing in favor of the Governor taking out his pen and affixing his John Hancock is the fact there are several provisions not mentioned in the RFA but included in the legislation that would be very attractive politically.   For example, the creation of an Office of Minority, Disabled Veterans, and Women Business Development along with the goal of having 30% of the permits awarded to disadvantaged groups will be difficult for the Governor to disregard. Also, the annual reports, testing standards and sheer comprehensive nature of the legislation may very well encourage the Governor to choose cooperation.

However, some Trenton insiders think the Governor would be inclined to veto the bill – choosing to favor having full power of the program in the hands of the Department of Health, rather than in an independent Commission with five members (two of which will be appointed by Legislative leaders Sweeney and Coughlin).  Still yet, might the Governor postpone his action and use consideration of this bill as leverage to encourage legislative approval of the millionaire’s tax? 

Signature, veto, and override are all possible.  Drama, however, is certain.   

Stay tuned.