New Jersey Democratic lawmakers killed legislation that would legalize recreational cannabis sales, and for the second time already this year. This action effectively stops any chance of Governor Phil Murphy delivering on a primary campaign promise any time before at least 2021. Instead, legislators now want to put the recreational use question on next year’s ballot, giving voters the opportunity to decide.
Will New Jersey Ever Have Legal Weed?
The resolution, introduced on Monday, needs to pass both houses of Legislature by a one-fifth majority in a single year or by basic majorities in consecutive years, if it is going to make it onto the ballot. In a joint statement with lead sponsor of the now dead legalization bill, Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union,) Senate President Steve Sweeney said:
“We made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively, but we recognize that the votes just are not there. We respect the positions taken by legislators on what is an issue of conscience.” – Senate President Steve Sweeney
Although senior lawmakers previously communicated the possibility of using a statewide referendum to move legalization forward, the announcement on Monday came just hours after Scutari demanded action on the recreational use bill in a press conference with Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) and various pro-cannabis activist groups.
The press conference, held at The Statehouse, included nearly a dozen activist, labor, business, and faith organizations, and intended to reenergize lobbying efforts for recreational use, a notion Sweeney claimed lawmakers would discuss in the lame duck session. However, citing arrest data from 2017 that shows racial prejudice in arrest rates, Scutari exclaimed that, “The time is now.”
“We are close,” Scutari said. “We are closer than we have ever been before. Action is needed now. I can tell you that we are discussing this at the highest levels of The Statehouse.” That is not the case, however. Shortly after ending his press conference, the Senate Majority Office released a joint statement with Sweeney, stating the time for imminent action had reached its end.
The Recreational Bill Explained
In an interview, Scutari said that he though he and Sweeney had at least 18, even 20, “yes” votes in the Senate supportive of his bill at the time of its death. To pass, they would need at least 21 votes in favor. On Friday, any window for passage there was grew even smaller when Senator Declan O’Scanlon said he would not support a recreational bill in this legislative session.
However, even without support the Republican from Monmouth County’s support, many still thought they had time to gain the required votes in the upper house. Lawmakers have until the December deadline to submit resolutions intended for a ballot initiative, time Sweeney and Murphy could have pushed for more support from hesitant Democrats.
According to Scutari, however, it would be very unlikely that such efforts would find success. “We could not wait any longer,” he explained. “We tried to get as many votes as we could, with everything going on with lame duck, I am not sure we could get people nailed down. This is the safest way to go.” A direct mandate from citizens to implement a legal recreational market may be the impetus lawmakers need.
Separately, an official from a second administration said that once it became clear that voters could get to decide the issue, the challenge of convincing lawmakers to support a bill became immediately more trying. “It is a very personal issue and they think about it in different ways. Once you start talking about a referendum in a real way, it is hard to get folks on that razor’s edge to go the other way.”
Murphy, who based much of his 2017 campaign on having a pro-marijuana view, claimed immense disappointment by the announcement, but said clearly during a statement that he believes the people of New Jersey, by their own mandate, will end this impasse by voting “yes.” He said, “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting the historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
What the People Want
Over the last two years, several notable polls show most New Jersey residents supportive of legalizing marijuana. Despite this, and perhaps in direct contravention of the people’s will, NJ RAMP, an arm of the anti-cannabis group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, already has plans underway to fight the measure even at the ballot box.
If voters approve the referendum, Legislature would then have a mandate to oversee the recreational industry, which it will grant to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, established earlier this year during the passage of medical marijuana legislation. Holley, a key sponsor in the Assembly of the recreational use bill, intends to continue the fight.
“We fell some votes short in the Senate,” Holley explained. “But the campaign still continues. I’ll continue to advocate and raise the issues I’ve raised since day one about the harms this has done to minority communities.” The announcement on Monday ended a long saga for the Democrat’s bill for recreational use, originally scheduled for voting in March after lengthy negotiations between Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Murphy.
After Murphy and Sweeney failed to get the required 21 votes from the upper house, that vote scuttled, even though most members of the Assembly supported the bill. Amid a growing dispute between South Jersey Democrat George Norcross and Murphy over tax incentives just two months later, Sweeney said there was no viable way forward for the bill to pass anymore, largely due to the failure of state administrators to unilaterally expand its medical marijuana program.
The Way Forward
Several months later, Sweeney changed direction, claiming he would like to try again with the legislation. He included technical revisions to accommodate changes in regulating New Jersey’s new medical marijuana law, as well as criminal justice reforms, both of which joined all subsequent legislation. The fate of recreational legislation will have an enormous impact on both previous bills.