‘Marijuana Will Get Passed:' New Jersey Lawmakers Call Off Vote to Legalize Recreational Marijuana, Vow to Keep Fighting

Gov. Phil Murphy supports the legislation and has been calling New Jersey lawmakers seeking their support

What to Know

  • New Jersey would join the District of Columbia and 10 other states with legalized recreational use of marijuana if the vote succeeds.
  • Gov. Phil Murphy supports the legislation and has been calling New Jersey lawmakers seeking their support.
  • “We’ll be back at this," New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said. "Anybody who thinks this is dead is wrong."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy vowed to continue pursuing a recreational cannabis bill after lawmakers called off what would have been a historic vote to legalize marijuana in the Garden State.

"We still stay in the fight," he said. "We will get there."

The decision was made after Democratic leaders in the state Senate came up short of the 21 votes they wanted before sending the bill to the General Assembly.

The setback did not appear to deter Murphy, who addressed reporters at a press conference some hours after a vote was stalled.

"History is rarely made at the first attempt," he said. "We are not defeated. I am committed to continuing discussions with lawmakers."

New Jersey would have been the second state in the nation to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature, not a ballot initiative. Vermont was the first state to pass that hurdle. 

A new vote on New Jersey's measure has not been set, but lawmakers on both sides of the issue believe a vote could happen as early as May. 

New Jersey already runs a medical marijuana program.

"Legalization of marijuana will get passed one way or another," New Jersey state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said. "I might have underestimated this getting passed. It doesn't mean we failed."

Sweeney added that the "fight" for legalization "is not over."

“We’ll be back at this," he said. "Anybody who thinks this is dead is wrong."

Monday's kerfuffle came after more than a year of mostly backroom wrangling since Murphy came into office. He campaigned on legalization in direct contrast with his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie.

Murphy had been calling lawmakers seeking their support in the days leading up to Monday's delayed vote, he said. Sweeney added that in all his years in office, he had never spent more time on a single bill. 

"We might have lost the battle, but we will absolutely win the war," Sweeney said.

It became clear towards the end of last week that the votes were simply not there. Some lawmakers were concerned the bill didn't do enough to address holes in the bill, while other state leaders simply do not want to see legal marijuana in New Jersey.

"Marijuana is not the benign drug we've been painting it as," Republican state Sen. Michael Doherty said. 

Despite Democratic control of state government, the issue has divided legislators, with even some Democrats who supported the measure in committee saying they weren't committed to a "yes" vote on the floor.

Part of the problem was the legislation, itself. Some lawmakers complained that it left too many questions unanswered about how the program would operate, what it would mean for law enforcement and what role home delivery would play. 

"We heard the bill was written in a really sloppy way," Kevin Sabet from Smart Approaches to Marijuana said. "It was a giveaway to big business marijuana interests [and] allow potent edibles."

The latter issue was a non-starter for Doherty, who worried that children would be attracted to cannabis gummy bears and other sweet treats. 

"It causes a lot of health problems," he said. 

Still, advocates for legal cannabis said New Jersey's bill showed that much progress has been made towards legalization.

"You look at the bill and it's incredible," said Bill Caruso, attorney and founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. "For people who have been arrested throughout the course of their life and have no recourse ... this is a great step forward."

The measure would have allowed for the sale and personal use of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and over. The drug would have been taxed at $42 an ounce, with the ability for towns that host growers, processors, wholesalers or retailers to charge an additional tax of up to 3 percent in some cases.

The measure called for creating a five-person cannabis regulatory commission, which would set the ground rules and oversee marijuana regulation in New Jersey.

The governor would name three of the five full-time members, who would serve for five-year terms. The Assembly speaker and Senate president would name the other two members.

The proposal also called for expungement of pending charges and prior marijuana-related convictions. Under the proposal, New Jersey would allow for the expungement of marijuana crimes for possession up to five pounds. Lawmakers acknowledged it sounds like a lot but said it's necessary in order to allow for an expedited expungement process since the statute covering possession for small amounts of cannabis goes up to five pounds.

The measure also aimed to incentivize women and minorities to participate in the legal marijuana market by requiring 30 percent of licenses go to these groups or people with more moderate incomes.

"This bill is historic," Caruso said. "To fall short by one vote, a couple of votes, just shows us we're this close and we keep working."

Civil rights groups such as the ACLU of New Jersey strongly endorsed the legislation and vowed to continue pushing towards legalization.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey who is running for president in 2020, introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would have made cannabis legal at the federal level. His bill was largely seen as symbolic but set the stage for marijuana legalization as a focal point for Democrats eyeing the presidency.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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