Supporters still short on ‘yes’ votes for legal weed

It probably shouldn’t have taken this long, given that the amendments to the legal marijuana bill were the basis of the agreement announced by Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin earlier this month. But the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee worked well into Monday evening to pass the amendments.

For chairman Nick Scutari, who’s been the engine of the legal weed movement for years, it was time well spent.

“Well, it’s a pretty big bill,” said Scutari. “We could’ve done it by four amendments but we wanted to make sure that we took advantage of the full weekend to make sure that the bill was reviewed and as perfect as we could get it.”

So Monday’s vote was a foregone, albeit slow-moving, conclusion leaving advocates and lobbyists to whip votes or speculate about head counts, as the rest of us sat around waiting for the amendments to be printed.

“Once we get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee and people can actually look at the final bill, the amended version, not something that’s constantly in flux – they get to look at it, have conversations with subject matter experts, legislative leadership, Murphy administration officials, and get their issues addressed — I think we’re going to be there for Monday,” predicted New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Scott Rudder.

That’s an optimistic view. There is still plenty of opposition to legal weed. Some lawmakers are just morally opposed to the very concept and will not be moved.

Supporters say the bill’s not perfect and that tweaks, even to the already pretty liberal expungement of possession and distribution of up to five pounds, can be made. Administration sources say the governor has been working the phones.

“I won’t get into specific names,” the governor said Tuesday. “We still have a ways to go.”

There are 21 Senate votes needed and sources say the governor has moved four senators to the ‘yes’ column: Joe Cryan, Nellie Pou, Brian Stack and Nicholas Sacco. He is said to still be targeting Sens. Joe Lagana, Paul Sarlo, Dawn Addiego and Nia Gill.

Four other South Jersey Democrats — Bob Andrzejczak, Fred Madden, James Beach and Nilsa Cruz-Perez — are holdouts and administration sources say they’d like to see Sweeney pull them into the ‘yes’ column.

As for Republicans, two targets — Sens. Kip Bateman and Declan O’Scanlon — have become solid ‘no’ votes, leaving the effort short by about six votes in the Senate.

It’s true that no one said it would be easy, but if this effort fails it will be a total team loss for Democrats and could poison the coming budget process, make a shutdown more likely and cloud the political waters just in time for November’s election.