There will be a renewed push in the coming weeks to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey as top lawmakers “start going after votes” again to pass a bill in the state Legislature, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday.
That’s good news for legal pot supporters who faced a setback when lawmakers called off a big vote on the measure in March because there weren’t enough votes to get it passed in the Senate. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, campaigned on the issue and had said he was ready to sign the bill into law.
As for the odds of the bill passing this time?
“It’s 50/50,” Sweeney, New Jersey’s most powerful state lawmaker, said during an interview. “I’m going to put my best effort into it."
New Jersey voters head to the polls Tuesday to select members of the state Assembly and vote in other races. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said leaders plan to start trying to convince lawmakers to support the pot bill once the dust settles after Election Day.
Earlier this year, the Senate — the upper house of the Democratic-controlled Legislature — was a handful of votes shy of the minimum 21 needed for passage.
Sweeney said Wednesday he had as many as 19 lawmakers at one point committed to supporting the bill, but the final votes have been difficult to tie down.
“Since I’ve been Senate president, this is the issue I committed to that I’ve had the toughest time getting over the finish line,” he said.
Both Democrats and Republicans have opposed the bill. Sweeney said part of the problem is it’s “a generational” issue with older lawmakers who are against legal weed.
“You can only push so hard on people, when it’s really their belief,” he said.
Lawmakers are already preparing a Plan B. If the bill fails to pass the Legislature in the coming months, Sweeney said, lawmakers plan to pass a resolution to ask voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana at the ballot box in November 2020.
Of the 11 states have legalized marijuana, only two did so legislatively — Illinois and Vermont. All others have done so through voter referendum.
Sweeney and others have said they’d prefer to legalize weed via bill because it will be easier to make changes in the future.
“One way or another, we’re gonna get marijuana in the state,” Sweeney said.
There’s a separate push to at least decriminalize marijuana until a vote can happen. That means people would face fines similar to a traffic ticket for possessing pot.
The goal there is to begin cutting down on marijuana arrests in New Jersey, especially among black residents.
Sweeney said he’s “willing to look at it."
“The very best scenario is we pass it (legislatively)," the Senate president added. “Then there’s no waiting.”