On Monday, top Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey killed a bill that would have legalized recreational cannabis. The move marks the second time lawmakers have pulled the plug on legalization this year. Now, however, lawmakers are proposing to put the question of recreational legalization on the November 2020 ballot, leaving it up to voters.
In a joint statement with Senator Nicholas Scutari, the lead sponsor of the cannabis legalization bill NJ S2703, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney said the legislation did not have enough votes to pass. Support for recreational legalization among lawmakers has dwindled in recent months, with some blaming Gov. Phil Murphy’s expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program for cooling support for full legalization.
2019 seemed like the year New Jersey would finally legalize recreational marijuana. In March, Gov. Murphy, who had campaigned on a social justice platform which included broad cannabis reform, announced that he had finally come to an agreement with legislative leaders on the broad outlines of legalization. After months of closed-door meetings and tough negotiations, Gov. Murphy finally got the adult-use legalization bill he’d wanted.
Murphy and pro-legalization lawmakers, however, have had a tough go at generating enough support in the Legislature to pass the bill. Conservative lawmakers and anti-cannabis holdovers from the Chris Christie administration have remained staunchly opposed to the Murphy administration’s cannabis agenda. One Republican opponent of legalization, Sen. Gerald Cardinale, has argued that legalization would increase traffic accidents and that marijuana tax revenue was tantamount to “blood money.”
Despite staunch opposition, Scutari said that the New Jersey Senate was “closer than we’ve ever been” to passing a legalization bill this year. Ultimately, however, Scutari and fellow sponsors of NJ S2703 fell a few votes shy of the 21 “yes” votes they’d need to pass the bill. “We tried to get as many votes as we could,” Sen. Scutari told POLITICO. Scutari said that without a guaranteed “yes” vote, pulling the bill was the safest option. The bill already had a majority of Assembly lawmakers supporting it.
With support among Senate lawmakers insufficient and dwindling, the plan has shifted. Abandoning legislative efforts to legalize recreational cannabis, lawmakers will now focus on getting a referendum on the 2020 ballot. That will put the question to New Jersey voters, who will likely have the chance to vote for recreational legalization in November 2020.
The battle over recreational marijuana legalization in New Jersey is headed to the ballot box. With no prospect of passing a legalization bill this year, lawmakers are now hoping to approve a ballot measure by the end of the current legislative session in December.
If voters end up approving the measure, the Legislature will be in charge of handing off oversight of the retail industry to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. The commission currently oversees New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.
If the ballot measure goes through, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the version of the bill lawmakers failed to get passed. The broad outlines of that bill include a $42 per ounce tax on cultivators in addition to taxes levied by municipalities that agree to host cannabis businesses. Social justice provisions, a key aspect of the bill for Gov. Murphy, would aim to bolster equity and fairness in the industry. For example, the bill would promote the participation of minority and women-owned business enterprises in New Jersey, as well as low- and middle-income individuals.
Furthermore, criminal justice provisions would help redress the ongoing harms of prohibition and criminalization and include a framework for expedited criminal record expungement for minor marijuana offenses. The bill would also implement a system that would block prior marijuana offenses from showing up on background checks or other checks related to education, housing or occupational licenses.
In a statement regarding lawmakers’ decision to kill the legalization bill, Gov. Murphy said he has faith that New Jersey voters will do the right thing in 2020. “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,” Gov. Murphy said.
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