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N.J. Could Expand Medical Marijuana

State committees advanced measures expanding the state's medical marijuana program and making it easier for certain convicts to clear their records.

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New Jersey lawmakers advanced legislation Monday expanding the state's medical marijuana program and making it easier for certain convicts to clear their records.

Democrat-led Assembly and Senate committees advanced the measures, with votes in each chamber coming as early as this week.

Monday's votes come days after Senate President Steve Sweeney said a bill legalizing recreational cannabis didn't have enough support to pass and he instead would pursue a 2020 referendum.

Sweeney also said that in the interim, lawmakers would pursue an expanded medical cannabis program as well as legislation to ease the expungement of certain criminal records.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy supports recreational cannabis legalization but had a "mixed reaction" to Sweeney's proposal. Murphy's office declined to comment Monday on the bills.

The medical marijuana legislation sets up a regulatory commission to oversee the program, which is managed by the Department of Health under current law.

The bill also calls for up to 23 permits for medical cannabis cultivation. Currently there are six alternative treatment centers, which are authorized to cultivate and dispense medical marijuana. The Murphy administration has said it would double that number to 12.

The 2010 law enacted under former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine authorized the treatment centers to cultivate, process and sell medical cannabis. The new legislation instead provides for different categories for wholesale and retail, for example, mirroring language in the recreational marijuana bill that remains on ice.

The measure also phases out the state's 6.625% sales tax by 2025. The bill, does however, establish the ability for towns where medical marijuana dispensaries are located to impose a transfer tax on dispensed marijuana of up to 2%.

Nearly 50,000 people are currently enrolled in the program. That's up from about 15,000 when Murphy took office in 2018.

The expungement measure changes how long people convicted of certain offenses must wait before seeking to clear their records from six years to five years. The bill also allows convicts who are not currently permitted to seek an expunged record the chance to apply for one after 10 years from their release from prison.

"Expanding the eligibility for expungement will allow more individuals to remove that stigma and break down those barriers preventing them from reaching their full potential," Democratic state Sen. Sandra Cunningham said in a statement.

The bills cleared each chamber's committee with hardly any opposition and little debate. Lawmakers say they could be up for votes in each chamber during Thursday's voting session.

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