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New Jersey bill to allow cannabis patients to grow at home has momentum, but one man is blocking it

BY: MATT FRIEDMAN | 03/15/2023 01:05 PM EDT

There’s no shortage of state senators on board with legislation that would allow medical cannabis patients to grow plants at home.

The bill, NJ S342, sponsored by state Sens. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), has gathered six co-sponsors, including four Republicans and two Democrats. And Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Chair Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) has been willing to hold a vote on it in his committee.

But one person stands in the bill’s way, according to cannabis advocate Chris Goldstein. And he just happens to be the the most powerful person in the Senate.

“Senate President [Nick] Scutari is really holding his members back in line on this issue,” Goldstein said.

More than thirteen years after New Jersey passed its first medical marijuana law and more than 2 years after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana, New Jersey remains the only state in the nation where anyone 21 and over can purchase cannabis at a dispensary but no one — including medical patients — is allowed to grow it at home.

It remains a felony in New Jersey to grow even one plant, and there’s nothing in the law that softens the potential penalties even for patients. Major corporations dominate legal medical and “adult-use” sales as patients and recreational users alike complain about high prices. (The cheapest available cannabis in one major retailer’s dispensary was $70 for a quarter-ounce pf “pre-ground flower,” which is generally the lowest-quality offering that enthusiasts call “shake.”)

Goldstein said that in a conversation last month, Singleton told him that Vitale has repeatedly listed the patient home grow bill on the committee’s agenda, only to see it removed by Scutari’s staff.

Scutari, who did not respond to a request for comment, has made no secret of his opposition to home grow, arguing that allowing people to grow a small number of plants at home would help the illicit market and handicap the legal one. But early last year, he expressed some openness to allowing patients and even recreational users once the industry is more established.

“Let’s take his public statement at face value that it is to get an industry off the ground,” Goldstein said. “That makes no sense. For the last year, it’s only been the biggest corporate, national brands that consumers in New Jersey have been propping up with the most expensive weed prices in the country.”

Growing cannabis at home could be cheap if a patient simply throws a seed in some soil outside. It could also be more expensive if a patient purchases an elaborate indoor growing setup that uses a significant amount of electricity. But it would almost certainly be less expensive than purchasing significant quantities from medical dispensaries over a long period.

There are several other bills that seek to reduce the cost of medical cannabis through means other than home grow by requiring insurance companies or state programs reimburse patients. But Goldstein said insurance customers and taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with such high prices.

Singleton and Vitale both acknowledged that they’ve attempted to put medical home grow on the Health committee’s agenda and that Scutari’s office has vetoed it, albeit in more diplomatic terms than Goldstein.

“What I would say is that we’ve requested the bill to be posted multiple times. Chairman Vitale has been great in affording us an opportunity to talk it through with him,” Singleton said. “But like every bill that’s on every agenda, the Senate president is the final arbiter on what moves forward and what doesn’t.”

Vitale said he wants to see “safeguards in place” for certain aspects of home grow. “But other than that, it’s certainly worth considering.”

Singleton’s bill would allow a patient or caregiver to grow up to four mature and four immature plants after registering with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. They’d face fines of up to $1,000 for selling or donating the cannabis and their registration would be voided.

Despite the efforts in the Senate, there’s been little to no debate about the legislation in the Assembly. A version of the bill in the lower house has just one sponsor, Assembly member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer). But Goldstein believes it would easily pass the Assembly if it cleared the Senate, which proved the more difficult house when it came to passing adult-use cannabis legalization in 2021 following voters’ overwhelming approval of the constitutional amendment several months earlier.

Singleton and Gopal also introduced a bill, NJ S353, that would allow all New Jersey adults to grow up to six plants and patients to grow up to 10, in both cases with a maximum of 12 plants per household. That bill, though it has several Democratic cosponsors, has not attracted bipartisan support.

New York, which legalized recreational cannabis shortly after New Jersey, began allowing patients to grow at home last October. The law will allow home grow for all adults within 18 months of the first dispensary opening, which took place in January.

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