New Jersey’s top state lawmaker announced Wednesday he’s dropping efforts to have the state Legislature pass a bill that would legalize marijuana in New Jersey.
Instead, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said, lawmakers will ask the state’s voters in November 2020 to decide whether to make weed legal here.
In the meantime, Sweeney added, lawmakers will move forward with two related bills that would “dramatically” expand the Garden State’s medical marijuana program and expunge the records of residents with past convictions of possessing small amounts of pot.
The announcement is a major blow in the more than year-long, ever-changing battle to make New Jersey the 11th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana — a signature campaign promise of Gov. Phil Murphy.
Murphy and his fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature spent months trying to gather enough votes to pass the bill that would make recreational marijuana legal for people 21 and older. They viewed a voter referendum as a last resort.
But Sweeney said they simply couldn’t secure enough support in the Senate, the Legislature’s upper house.
“There’s no sense dragging this out,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton. “I’m disappointed.”
“We did our best,” he added. “The votes just aren’t there.”
Sweeney said he expects voters to approve the ballot question next fall. Polls show a majority of New Jersey residents support legalizing pot.
“If you believe any of the polls, we’ll be successful,” he said.
Still, you might not be able to light up legally until sometime in 2021 because the state would need some time to set up the new industry.
NJ Advance Media was the first to report about Sweeney’s plans Wednesday morning.
Sweeney said lawmakers may now make changes to the medical and expungement bills but hope to vote by the end of June.
He said it’s “wrong” to hold those bills “hostage.”
State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — the leader of the Legislature’s lower chamber — released a statement saying he’s also “disappointed." But Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said he agrees with Sweeney’s decision to move forward on the medical and expungement bills.
The speaker said increasing access to medical marijuana “will mean the difference between being able to participate in life or having to suffer every day with intense pain and debilitating symptoms.”
And he said the expungement bill would “give thousands of New Jerseyans the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate making it easier to gain employment, buy a home or get a loan.”
Of the 10 states that have already legalized pot, all but one — Vermont — has done so by asking voters. But Murphy and lawmakers said taking the legislative route would give them more flexibility to set up and change the laws regulating the new industry.
The issue: Lawmakers from both political parties have been staunchly opposed. A planned vote in March was canceled when leaders fell a few votes short of passage in the Senate, and the hope for a new vote in May faded in recent weeks.
Sweeney tied the recreational bill to the more popular medical and expungement bills in hopes of mustering more support for legalizing weed. But that drew blowback.
Murphy said he’d have “no choice” but to use an executive order to expand the state’s medical pot program himself if a vote didn’t happen in May because more patients need help.
On Monday, Murphy’s administration announced the state Health Department will next week have new legal authority to expand the supply and demand for medical cannabis in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties have made public pushes in recent days to move on the medical pot bill separately.
“It’s time to pivot,” state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Hope for the recreational bill began dimming in recent weeks, especially because Murphy and Sweeney — who often feud — are now in an escalating civil war over tax incentives that’s drawing much of the attention in Trenton.
Sweeney on Wednesday stressed that Murphy worked closely with lawmakers in the fight muster votes in the Legislature. But he also partially blamed Murphy for causing a vote on the recreational bill to be scuttled.
The Senate president said he asked the governor not to announce he’d expand medical weed on his own if a May vote failed, fearing that would give lawmakers a reason not to vote for the recreational bill. But, Sweeney said, Murphy “didn’t listen.”
“After the governor announced medical expansion, it was pretty much over,” the Senate president said. “The urgency went away.”
Sweeney also dismissed criticism that he couldn’t sway a handful of fellow South Jersey lawmakers to his side. He said Murphy also failed to sway some of his own allies in the northern half of the state.
“There was never a list of votes provided to me to show they were close,” Sweeney said.
Murphy’s office declined to comment on Sweeney’s announcement, saying the governor would address the matter at an unrelated news conference later Wednesday.
The medical bill (S10) would increase the amount of cannabis patients could obtain, lengthen the list of conditions, increase the number of dispensaries, and multiply the number of professionals who could write prescriptions.
The expungement bill (A4498) would allow people to have their records cleared of small pot convictions 10 years from the date they were released, completed probation, or finished parole.
The latter measure is part of efforts by Murphy and other Democrats to make sure social justice is improved by legalizing pot. Murphy often cites statistics showing residents of color are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites.
Sweeney said he expects both measures to pass easily in the Legislature.
As for the referendum? Lawmakers will have to pass a resolution authorizing a ballot question asking voters whether amend the state Constitution to legalize recreational marijuana. Sweeney said that shouldn’t be a problem.
Murphy does not to sign off on a referendum. That means he technically won’t have a formal say in whether one of his key policy initiatives becomes a reality.
Sweeney said he decided against putting the question on this November’s ballot because Assembly seats top the ticket and will likely draw a low — and older — voter turnout.
Instead, Sweeney said, next November, when there’s a presidential election, is expected to draw a larger — and younger — turnout.
Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said his group is “clearly disappointed that adult-use legalization has been put on the backburner.”
But, Rudder, added “we are thankful that medical cannabis reform is moving forward and patients will finally have greater access and be able to participate in a more affordable program.”