Lawmakers Give Up on Marijuana Legislation, Will Seek Voter OK Instead

Democratic leaders said they did not have the votes, now looking to a November 2020 referendum

The on-again, off-again attempt to legalize marijuana in New Jersey through legislation apparently died Monday as leading Democratic lawmakers said they had again failed to muster enough votes and would instead focus on putting the question before voters next November.

“We recognize that the votes just aren’t there,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a joint statement with Nicholas Scutari, the Democratic senator from Linden who was the sponsor of the now-abandoned legalization bill. “We respect the positions taken by legislators on what is an issue of conscience.”

In recent days, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had resurrected the moribund effort to get a comprehensive legalization bill passed during the Legislature’s lame-duck session, after having pulled the plug on the measure in the spring, when he also said he favored a referendum. Monday’s joint statement was also an about-face by Scutari, who just hours before had said he thought the legislative route might still work.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” Scutari, the deputy majority leader in the upper house, had said. “When you have the leaders of both houses and the governor’s house all in agreement that we must do something, there’s very little reason why we don’t.”

It’s a defeat for Gov. Phil Murphy, as well. He spent three years and serious political capital supporting the legalization bill, and earlier Monday had also said he thought the measure might get traction.

The first-term Democrat had campaigned on the issue, casting legalization as a social-justice issue, a way to resolve the disparity between minorities and whites in rates of incarceration for minor drug violations.

Governor is disappointed

On Monday, in a statement released by his office, Murphy expressed disappointment over the news.

“My belief that our current marijuana laws have failed every test of social justice and that the right course is to legalize its use by adults has not changed. I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo — which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.”

Murphy said, however, that he believed voters would approve legalization. Polls show that as many as 60% of voters in the state are in favor of legalized access to the drug for all, not just those with a prescription under New Jersey’s medical marijuana protocol.

“I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”

Legalization stalled in the face of intractable opposition from Democrats like state Sen. Ron Rice, the Essex County lawmaker who heads the legislative Black Caucus. Rice preferred to focus on decriminalization, fearing wholesale legalization would hurt — more than benefit — inner city neighborhoods.

On Monday, Rice applauded the push for a ballot question.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it gives people time to do their homework,” he said. “Kudos to the legislators who stood their ground, saying they want to know more.

“People can’t just sell social justice under the auspices of legalization,” he added. “I’m willing to go to court on the civil rights issue, if we don’t get decriminalization immediately. We are discriminating against people of color.”

Arrests have risen in NJ

Even as the state has considered legalization, arrests for low-level marijuana offenses have risen in recent years across the state, with the FBI reporting an average of 95 arrests each day in 2017, as opposed to 66 in 2013. One in three were people of color.

Late last week, GOP Sen. Declan O’Scanlon of Monmouth County had said he would oppose the bill and would push instead for a referendum.

“It’s time to end the mixed message being sent to the public, the industry, law enforcement, and both opponents and supporters of marijuana legalization,” he said in a statement.

In addition to legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, the now abandoned bill also provided for the expungement of the criminal records of those who had been charged with some drug charges.

A draft of the proposed question, which requires legislative approval to make it onto the ballot, reads:

“Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’? Only adults 21 years of age and older could use cannabis. The state commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”

The Legislature must act by next summer for the question to make it onto the ballot in November. If the measure is approved by the voters then, legalization could not go into effect before the beginning of 2021.

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