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When Jo Anne Zito was initially arrested for at-home cultivation nearly 10 years ago, her kids were taken away from her. Though her charge was later downgraded to low-level possession thanks to a grand jury, she’d already gotten a taste of how severely those who grow cannabis at home are criminalized.
Only after completing a pricey drug rehabilitation program was she legally eligible to receive custody, on top of serving three years of probation. Her husband, now deceased, was also charged and sentenced to drug court.
Three-and-a-half years into his sentence, he died while fulfilling the intense requirements of the program, Zito, board member at the Coalition for Medical Marijuana—New Jersey (MMNJ), told the state Senate in December during her public testimony in favor of at-home cannabis cultivation.
Under the proposed legislation on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, at-home cultivation (or home-grow) still remains severely criminalized.
“I don’t want to be in the business, I just want to grow and be left alone. Legalize me,” she said during testimony.
As lawmakers finalize the details of New Jersey’s cannabis legalization and decriminalization policies, at-home cultivation hasn’t been considered to be included in the coming reform measures by state lawmakers.
Though the recent “clean-up” bill (S3550) loosens penalties for anyone carrying less than six ounces of cannabis, it also forbids anyone to “create, distribute, or possess or have under his control with intent to distribute, a counterfeit controlled dangerous substance.”
Despite how much work has already been put into legislative sessions, there are still plenty of gaps in the legislation. Ryan Magee, cannabis attorney at Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti, attributes this to how much time and support is available to adequately address the topic.
“Managing the program from ‘seed to sale’ as we say is the most conservative way for a state to go about doing that, so homegrow in general is a pretty complex variable I think that lawmakers now believe they don’t have the time — and frankly, the vote — to adequately address at the moment,” he said.
However, there was once support for at-home cultivation in the legislature, Zito emphasized during an interview for this story. Over a decade ago, lawmakers previously discussed at-home cultivation while drafting the state’s medical marijuana program. Though it wasn’t included in the final draft of the Compassionate Use for Medical Marijuana Act signed by Gov. Jon Corzine, there was once a “grow-at-home” provision permitting registered patients to grow six plants at home without penalty.
Additionally, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, previously supported the pardon of John Jay Wilson, a multiple sclerosis patient who grew his own cannabis. Though he only served five months of his five-year sentence, he was mandated to the Intensive Supervision Program, New Jersey’s drug court program Zito’s husband was also legally required to complete.
“They voted for it then, why would they have a problem with it now?” Zito said.
Back in 2009, opponents compared the state’s proposed measure to California’s Proposition 215, which permits medical patients to grow at home. Since California was the first ever in the United States to implement a state-regulated medical marijuana program, they faced tremendous criticism from all over the country. Admittedly, the Golden State was the first test run of how such a program would operate legally.
Bill sponsors responded to this criticism by shifting decision-making power to the Department of Health, which limited the amount of usable marijuana a patient can have to one ounce per month. However, the Assembly health committee soon scrapped the provision permitting at-home cultivation entirely from the bill.
“We want seeds and clones to buy like in other legalized states,” Zito told lawmakers.
At-home cultivation isn’t as radical an idea as New Jersey lawmakers make it seem. Currently, 17 states, in addition to Washington DC, allow at-home cultivation for adults 21 and over.
Some states impose more restrictions on which of-age residents can grow at home. Although Nevada and Arizona of-age residents can grow recreationally, they must live at least 25 miles away from a dispensary. Additionally, Missouri law only allows medical marijuana patients to grow at home, who must pay a $100 fee.
Others have more progressive measures. Alaska permits anyone 21 years or older to cultivate six plants. Additionally, Massachusetts allows cultivation of up to a dozen plants if there two of-age residents in the household. Yet even these measures have clear rules, like banning public consumption and allowing employers to make their own policies.
If at-home cultivation continues to be ignored in this round of legalization measures, Magee said reform could happen in the future. “I certainly wouldn’t discount the possibility of amendments eventually being made to the law moving forward to account for,” he added. “Ultimately, [lawmakers are] going to need the votes to do that and I think the general population of New Jersey will have to be on board with that.”
As lawmakers configure their constituents’ support for what they want in legalization measures, recent data shows New Jersey residents know what they don’t want. According to a 2018 Rutgers University poll, 60% New Jersey voters disagree with a ban that’d forbid residents from growing their own cannabis at home.”
This story first appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider.
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