Sweeney: Let Voters Decide Fate of Recreational Marijuana in 2020

Senate president says there are not enough votes to get it done legislatively; governor shows little enthusiasm for putting it on the ballot

Senate President Steve Sweeney says he has given up trying to get enough votes in the Senate to try and legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey.

“We were attempting to get marijuana passed through the legislative process … and we just don’t have the votes to pass it right now. I made a decision as the president of the Senate that we’re going to move to a ballot initiative for the 2020 general election,” Sweeney said.

He said the Legislature could go ahead with a medical marijuana expansion bill that is popular in Trenton. It would also be a good idea, he said, to pass a bill that would expunge the criminal records of those with low-level marijuana convictions.

Sweeney said it would not be difficult to get the legalization issue on the ballot. “That’s probably the easiest thing,” he said. “Then it’s getting it passed, which obviously I’m not going to underestimate. But a lot of the people in the state of New Jersey truly support the legalization of marijuana and I would expect it to pass pretty easily.”

Gov. Phil Murphy responded at an event in East Windsor, where he was meeting with local officials to talk about his 2020 budget plan. He said his reaction to Sweeney’s announcement was mixed.

“The expungement piece of that is enormously important, and what we came close to achieving a couple months ago … not just expungement, but vacating of sentences of folks in the system today, which would have been historic. I’m all in conceptually for that. I guess the devil’s going to be in the details because the medical marijuana bill informs itself from the adult-use bill, and I think that’s going to have to be addressed, as well as the expungement bill not only informs itself from the adult-use marijuana bill but I’m not clear, based on what was discussed this morning (and admittedly I’ve been running around and I haven’t had a chance to clarify it), are we expunging something in the past that is still illegal today. And I would just remind everybody that 600 people this week — plus or minus depending on the time of the year — will be arrested for low-end marijuana offenses. Four hundred and fifty-ish of them will be of color,” Murphy said.

So Murphy sounds like a reluctant participant in the effort to get a marijuana question on the 2020 ballot. Sweeney took a couple of swipes at the governor for their collective failure to get this through the Legislature but Murphy said he rejected that, and that it had been a team effort all the way. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin weighed in Wednesday in support of the Sweeney plan.