Several Mid-Atlantic states have expanded their marijuana laws this year, and New Jersey continues to push for full legalization despite federal prohibition.

Recent comments from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney suggest one final legislative effort to legalize marijuana in 2019.

“I think I’ve been consistent that I hoped we could have one more shot at this,” Murphy told reporters last week. “Getting something to happen sooner, if we have a real shot at that, I’d be all in. … Count me all in to try and work toward that.”

The Governor’s promised to legalize marijuana within his first 100 days in office. That was nearly two years ago. The following year-and-a-half has been a rollercoaster of rising and falling expectations for reform advocates. After Murphy and Sweeney came to an early 2019 agreement regarding how recreational marijuana would be taxed, the stage appeared finally set for a legislative vote.

In a surprise decision, the vote was called off at the last minute due to a lack of support. Sweeney then announced the measure would be on hold until it could be presented as a ballot initiative for voters to decide in 2020. The legislative effort to legalize marijuana thus appeared on indefinite hiatus. Both leaders’ recent comments indicate otherwise.

Illinois passed a legalization bill through its legislature. Perhaps more important for economic considerations in the northeast, the State of New York decriminalized marijuana in July. New Jersey politicians may now feel in danger of losing a first-mover advantage in the region.

Governor Murphy has been more successful in expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana program through executive action. In July he also signed a new bill to further loosen restrictions and increase access to the program. Enrollment has increased from 15,000 to nearly 50,000 patients since Murphy took office.

New York Decriminalization Bill Signed Into Law

The New York legislature passed a decriminalization bill in June. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law in late July. The law both expunges many past convictions for marijuana possession and reduces penalties in the future. Advocates initially proposed full legalization but shifted strategy after it became clear they lacked enough votes.

“It does do two good things,” said Emma Goodman, a staff attorney in Legal Aid Society’s special litigation unit. Goodman worked with legislators to lobby for legalization.

“It makes something that was a misdemeanor now a violation, and it automatically expunges old misdemeanor convictions,” Goodman said. “That’s more than a lot of states have done. The problem is that it’s just getting rid of one very small amount of low-level offenses and it’s not actually legalizing marijuana … violations are still arrestable offenses in New York.”

New York’s medical marijuana program has approximately 102,000 patients. Some Empire State doctors have begun advocating for expanding the program as a safer alternative than opiates for treating chronic pain.

Pennsylvania Expands Medical Marijuana Program

Pennsylvania now includes anxiety and Tourette’s on the list of qualifying conditions for enrollment in its medical marijuana program. The move by the Pennsylvania Health Department will allow medical marijuana for conditions beyond cancer, epilepsy, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illness. Similar decisions in other states have led to significant increases in enrollment.

The Keystone State currently has nearly 116,000 patients certified for participation in its medical marijuana program. The program is relatively new, coming online in February 2018.

“The first year that the state’s medical-marijuana program has been operational tells us that this program is working to help Pennsylvanians in need of this medication,” Governor Tom Wolf said. “Patients are realizing the benefits and there has been steady, positive progress that I am pleased to report.”

In its first full year, Pennsylvania collected $2 million in tax revenue from growers and processors. Dispensaries reported $132 million in sales. The program has also expanded to allow patients to purchase marijuana is dried leaf form. Initially, only pills, liquids, or topical ointments were permitted.

“Our goal for the next year and beyond is to increase the number of grower/processors and dispensaries operating, to register even more physicians and to continue the growth of our scientific, medically based program,” Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is noteworthy for its promotion of scientific testing. As part of the program, the state-certified eight academic clinical research centers. The mission of the clinical program is to conduct, “Research on the therapeutic or palliative efficacy of medical marijuana limited to the serious medical conditions defined by the act and the temporary regulations.” The state also has four approved laboratories for quality testing and sampling.

Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana have struggled to gain traction. In July, a county judge made headlines when he predicted legalizing marijuana would produce “carnage” on Pennsylvania roadways.

“Marijuana is an hallucinogen,” said Dauphin County Judge William T. Tully. “The idea of legalizing it given the carnage that is likely to result is incomprehensible to me.”

Governor Wolf and Lieutenant Governor Fetterman have expressed their support to “take a serious look” at legalizing recreational marijuana.

Originally published on the Cannabis Law Report

Patrick McKnight
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