NEW JERSEY SEEKS TO EXPAND MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROGRAM

After the New Jersey Legislature was unable to come to an agreement on the terms of a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, they have refocused their efforts to greatly expand New Jersey’s current medical marijuana program.

On May 23, 2019, the New Jersey Assembly overwhelmingly passed the “Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act” by a vote of 65-5.  The bill, if ultimately adopted by the New Jersey Senate and Governor, would greatly increase patient access to medical marijuana.  Key elements of the bill include expanding the number of permits for medical marijuana businesses, increasing the limits on the amount of medical marijuana a patient can purchase, limiting the number of appointments a patient must have with a physician before a formal recommendation for medical marijuana treatment and expanding the methods by which patients can obtain medical marijuana.

Under the bill, the number of permits for medical marijuana businesses would be increased from twelve to twenty-three. Additionally, it would break up the permitting system to allow businesses to seek permits for only one aspect of the medical marijuana business such as retail sales, growing or manufacturing.  Under the current system, businesses are required to engage in all aspects of the market including growing, packaging, processing and sales.

The amount of medical marijuana patients are permitted to purchase would also be increased from two to three ounces per month.  The bill would also eliminate the requirement that the patient have at least a year long history of regular visits with the prescribing physician, prior to a recommendation for medical marijuana treatment. Patients and advocates had previously criticized these limitations arguing they prevented or delayed certain patients from obtaining access to needed medication.

The bill also increases access for patients who may be unable to travel to a dispensary to pick up their medication by permitting deliveries and increases the number of designated caregivers who can pick up a patient’s medication from one to two.

Under the new bill, a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission (the “Commission”) in the New Jersey Department of Treasury would be set up to assume the oversight and regulatory powers previously designated to the New Jersey Department of Health (the “DOH”).  The Commission would include at least one “social justice” member representative from a national organization with a “stated mission of studying, advocating, or adjudicating against minority historical oppression, past and present discrimination, unemployment, poverty and income inequality, and other forms of social injustice or inequality.”

Other aspects of the proposed bill include a sales tax of 6.625% to be phased out on January 1, 2025, authorizing municipalities with a dispensary within their borders to impose a 2% transfer tax, permitting municipalities to enact ordinances creating consumption areas for patients, authorizing physician assistants and some advanced-practice nurses to recommend medical marijuana treatment, and permitting patients who have received medical marijuana cards in other states to receive their medication in New Jersey for a period of up to six months.

The bill passed the Senate on May 29, 2019 by a vote of 33-4.  However, the Senate’s bill included a last minute amendment which would allow cannabis industry employees to unionize.  Accordingly, the Assembly must re-vote on the amended bill before it is presented to the Governor for final approval.  That vote may come as soon as June 10, 2019.

The Governor has not indicated whether he would sign the bill in its current form.  However, the DOH, on June 3, 2019, announced plans to begin accepting applications for 108 new medical marijuana businesses.  That number contradicts, and is significantly higher, than that in the proposed legislation.  Under the DOH’s plan, the new licenses would be split by regions with thirty-eight licenses each in the North and Central Regions and thirty-two in the Southern Region.  The DOH indicated it wishes to see these licenses result in twenty-four new growers, thirty new processors and fifty-four new retailers.

It is clear New Jersey is ready to expand its medical marijuana program.  However, given the separate, and somewhat conflicting, efforts to do so, it remains unclear exactly what the final terms of that expansion will be.