Governor and lawmakers remain divided on legal weed

Ian T. Shearn, Colleen O'Dea | January 14, 2021 | Politics, Social
Impasse still in place, two months after voters overwhelmingly approved recreational use of marijuana by adults
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Voters okayed recreational marijuana in November, but Trenton has yet to finalize the legislation needed to make it legal.

New Jersey’s long journey to legalize recreational adult-use marijuana remains mired in what is rapidly becoming a standoff between the governor and the Legislature. For the moment, neither side is showing any sign of budging.

Companion bills to legalize and decriminalize marijuana were passed nearly a month ago.  Gov. Phil Murphy has not signed them into law and he is demanding a third bill be passed that would specify penalties for minors caught with marijuana.

The requested “cleanup” bill was drafted, but abruptly pulled last week when several senators refused to support it — including sponsors Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). A floor vote scheduled for Monday was canceled.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative in November, amending the state Constitution in order to legalize marijuana. It was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, but the bills translating that mandate into reality have yet to be passed.

Sens. Ron Rice and Nia Gill, both Essex County Democrats, led the charge against the cleanup bill last week in a heated caucus discussion. They argued, in essence, that it created a number of scenarios that could push Black and brown minors into the criminal justice system — which defies the underlying, social-justice intentions of the legislation.

Murphy continues to insist that a “drafting error” in the bill left the issue unresolved regarding how minors should be punished. Yesterday, he said the bills as written prescribe no punishment for minors who possess marijuana.

“Nobody has ever spoken, including yours truly, about legalizing recreational marijuana for kids,” he said during his press briefing Wednesday.

Different take from the Senate president

First of all, there was no drafting error, Senate President Steve Sweeney said during a meeting with NJ Spotlight News on Wednesday.

“The language that we’re arguing over has been in the bill for two years,” and it was intentional, he said — the result of discussion and “a policy decision” by the Legislature.

Secondly, “there is punishment” in the current bill, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. “There is a penalty for under-age consumption, the same as underage drinking.”

“When members are saying, ‘Take my name off the bill that I sponsored,’ I have to listen to my caucus,” he said. “I was trying to find a compromise with the administration.”

Now Sweeney suggests the governor approve the legalization bill already on his desk. “We would hope the governor would sign it,” he added.

But the Murphy administration has a different view.

“The current bills on our desk explicitly provide for criminal penalties for cannabis possession or use by minors. The governor’s cleanup bill, in contrast, downgrades these to curbside warnings and civil infractions,” said a source from the governor’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized.

“So the current bills that are on our desk are unfit for signature because they inadvertently legalize marijuana for children,” the source added. “Therefore, cleanup legislation is needed to fix the unintended consequences as it relates to minors.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) appears to be avoiding the public quarrel.

“The speaker, Assembly Democratic leadership and the bill sponsors continue to have ongoing and productive discussions with the governor and the Senate president,” said Kevin McArdle, spokesman for the Assembly majority office.

And then there’s this

Assuming marijuana enabling legislation will eventually be signed, Sweeney doubled down Wednesday on another unresolved point of contention between the governor and him. Sweeney said he still plans to introduce a resolution that would put marijuana back before the voters for a second constitutional amendment. This one would ask voters to dedicate the lion’s share of revenue generated by taxes and fees in the new cannabis industry to social-justice programs. The current bill includes identical language.

“That’s the only way you can guarantee the funding that we say we’re putting in these places stays in these places, because the budget document always overrides anything that we do,” Sweeney said. “I want to do all these things to help these communities.”

When that will happen is unclear, though. Sweeney said he is still working to gain support within his caucus. He also thinks this year, with the governor seeking reelection and the entire Legislature on the ballot, may not be the best time to put such a question to voters.

“I might look for the best election cycle,” Sweeney said, suggesting that a federal election year might be better.