Up in Smoke: Why Bill to Legalize Weed Was Pulled from Legislative Agenda

Carly Sitrin | March 26, 2019 | Politics
Caucus reveals 21 requisite ‘yes’ votes couldn’t be mustered in the Senate, but measure’s sponsors and leaders say they’ll be back, perhaps as early as May

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After a much-anticipated vote to legalize recreational marijuana was pulled from the legislative agenda Monday, leaders promised to revisit the bill sometime this year — maybe even as soon as later this spring. “The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey one way or another,” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told reporters.

A floor vote on the measure, which would legalize and regulate growing and selling marijuana for adult use, was withdrawn after a Senate caucus meeting revealed the 21 Senate votes needed to pass the legislation couldn’t be mustered.

“History is rarely made at the first attempt,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a press conference on Monday. “Eventually barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down. I’m disappointed but we are not defeated.”

Despite having more than a year of negotiations, bill drafting, horse trading, and fact sharing behind them, state lawmakers were faced with a last-second cloud of uncertainty that forced Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) to pull the legalization bill, S-2703, accompanying medical marijuana expansion plan, and expungement proposition from the agenda Monday afternoon.

United we stand

The three leaders — Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin — presented a united front, declining to comment on many of the specifics of the negotiation process and insisting that the vote postponement was a setback rather than an outright failure.

“If it was easy, every state would have done it this way,” Sweeney said, meaning through legislation rather than referendum. Legislation allows the state to implement more features in the law that covers all aspects of cannabis legalization. “The bill has not failed, it was held…we’re going to work to get more votes.”

With the session set to start at noon, Democrats holed up behind closed doors caucusing as advocates and lobbyists swapped rumors in the halls as they waited. Sources close to the negotiation process Monday morning put the vote count at around 17 or 18 “yes” votes in the Senate — short of the 21 needed to pass the upper house. Still, the caucus did not hold a formal vote on the issue, so it’s hard to be sure where every legislator stands.

Looking ahead, Sweeney committed to bringing the bill to a vote as soon as he could confirm the 21 votes needed, which could be as soon as May of this year. Skeptics, however, say the budget process may push it back as far as November or December. Sweeney had previously said if the bill couldn’t pass this week, it would probably have to wait until after the budget was finalized. Murphy went one step further at an unrelated press conference last week, saying legalization would have to be done “Monday or never.” He also floated the idea of pushing forward a significant expansion of the medical cannabis program in case the vote failed. When asked if that plan was still in the works, Murphy deflected, saying “I don’t have a good answer for that. We’re looking at it right now.”

It’s expected that the legislation will undergo some changes before the next vote, especially the expungement language, and will either be sent back to committee to review any amendments or put to an emergency vote to get around that requirement.

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

Just say ‘no’

No lawmaker came forward to explain the sticking points discussed in caucus, and it’s hard to determine who the “no” votes would have been, but Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) told reporters he planned to be among those.

Several South Jersey Democrats including Sens. James Beach (D-Camden) and Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington) were also expected to land on the “no” side of the fence.

The Assembly appeared to be more in favor, and advocates suspected the lower chamber could have passed the bill, but Coughlin asserted he would not move forward unless it could pass both houses.

“Whatever internal political calculations were made I’m not going to share,” Coughlin said. “The Senate President, the governor, and I worked collectively to try to achieve success in this bill. We were in this together. I made the decision, we will fall back, we will regroup, and we will both come up with a strategy to make sure we can achieve what we set out to do.”

The three leaders, bill sponsor Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), and others didn’t respond to repeated questions regarding the impasses among legislators. Murphy said the men would have to conduct a “post-op” on the bill to discuss areas that may need to be changed, or ways to “educate lawmakers” on some aspects of the bill. Scutari said in a press conference there could likely be language changes in the near future.

Expungement by the pound

Sources close to the issue point to the expungement section as ripe for change — specifically the section that would expand expungement eligibility for past convictions that involved marijuana in an amount up to five pounds, which caused concern last week when discussed in committee. Although five pounds sounds like a lot, it reflects the wording of state statute. The law calls for different penalties for possessing one ounce or less, one ounce to five pounds, and more than five pounds. So whether you were convicted of possessing two ounces of cannabis or five pounds of cannabis, the conviction and penalties are the same.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, and Sen. Nick Scutari, right, explain why they did not go ahead with a vote on marijuana legislation.
Future versions of the bill are not expected to change that wording; police records usually don’t cite the exact weight and instead use the wording of the statute. However, legislative leaders expect to be able to educate more members on this issue.

The cap on the number of growers — only 28 would be allowed in the first 18 months — has also been raising questions. So has the issue of what the procedures should be for law enforcement when confronted with intoxicated driving.

Any significant changes would force the bill to be sent back through the committee process before it could be put to a full floor vote again. There is also the rare and difficult emergency vote route that requires three-quarters of lawmakers to agree — 30 in the Senate, 60 in the Assembly — to send the bill to the floor without a third reading.

Opportunity for opposition?

And while legislative leaders are insisting this is not the last of the legalization push, the opposition said they see the delay as an opportunity to persuade more lawmakers to vote no.

“We are thrilled about the pulling of the vote today,” Kevin Sabet, a former member of the Obama administration and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action said. “We don’t think legalization is coming back for a winning vote. We think this is done. We agree with one thing Gov. Murphy said last week which is ‘Monday or never’ and we think it will be a ‘never’ at this point because there are just too many unanswered questions.”

Despite Monday’s setback, Murphy noted, there is a sense of urgency on this issue, as every passing day more New Jerseyans — often New Jerseyans of color — are being arrested and convicted of low-level cannabis crimes.

“We will stand even stronger, knowing that the lives of 30,000 people arrested each year for marijuana possession hang in the balance,” ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said in a statement. “The fact that the margins were a hair too thin for the vote to go forward is a disappointment, but that should not be the takeaway for today. We’re closer than ever before to passing the most socially and racially conscious legalization plan in the country, and today was one further step toward that ultimate goal,” he said.

Now, legislative leaders will take the next few weeks or months to hammer out a bill they are confident can pass both houses and land on the governor’s desk. If not, they risk putting the question on the ballot, a move Sweeney said would pass easily but Murphy noted would be less comprehensive and less “courageous.”

“This is an issue that’s not going away,” Sweeney said. “We’ve made a few mistakes. We’ll fix them. We’ll move forward; we’ll come back.”