New Jersey marijuana legalization bill dead; lawmakers will let voters decide – Politico
TRENTON — For the second time this year, top Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey pulled the plug on legislation to legalize cannabis sales for recreational use, killing any likelihood Gov. Phil Murphy will deliver on a key campaign promise before 2021.
Instead, legislative leaders introduced a resolution Monday that would put a recreational use question on the November 2020 ballot. The resolution would need to pass both houses of the state Legislature by three-fifths majorities in one year or by simple majorities in consecutive years to make it onto the ballot.
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“We made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively, but we recognize that the votes just aren’t there. We respect the positions taken by legislators on what is an issue of conscience,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a joint statement with Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who had been the lead sponsor of the cannabis legalization bill, NJ S2703 (18R), in the upper house.
While senior lawmakers had telegraphed the possibility that they’d move forward with cannabis legalization through a referendum, Monday’s announcement came less than three hours after Scutari held a press conference with Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) and pro-cannabis groups to demand action on the recreational use bill.
The Statehouse press conference, which included almost a dozen faith, activist, business and labor organizations, was intended to inject new vigor into lobbying efforts for recreational use — which Sweeney said lawmakers would consider in the lame duck session.
“The time is now for action,” Scutari said, citing 2017 arrest data showing stark racial disparities in marijuana arrests. “We’re close. We’re closer than we’ve ever been before. Action is needed now. I can tell you that we are discussing this at the highest levels of the Statehouse.”
However close they may have been, it wasn’t close enough. Shortly after Scutari‘s press conference ended, the Senate Majority Office released his joint statement with Sweeney, saying the time for immediate action had drawn to a close.
Scutari said in an interview he thought he and Sweeney had between 18 and 20 “yes” votes in the Senate in support of his legislation at the time the bill was pulled. They would need 21 “yes“ votes for passage. The window for passage narrowed significantly on Friday when Sen. Declan O’Scanlon said he wouldn’t back a recreational use bill during the current legislative session.
Even without the Monmouth County Republican, lawmakers, activists and administration officials still believed there was time to whip the necessary votes in the upper house, sources told POLITICO. The deadline for submitting a resolution for a ballot initiative doesn’t fall until December, according to one administration official, a period Murphy and Sweeney could have used to drive support among reluctant Democrats.
Those efforts likely would have been unsuccessful, Scutari said.
“We couldn’t wait any longer. We tried to get as many votes as we could, with everything going on with lame duck, I’m not sure we could get people nailed down,” Scutari told POLITICO. “This is the safest way to go.”
Separately, a second administration official said that as soon as it became clear voters could have an opportunity to decide the issue, the prospects of convincing lawmakers to pass a recreational use bill became much more difficult.
“It is a very personal issue and they think about it in different ways. Once you start talking about a referendum in a real way, it’s hard to get folks on that razor’s edge to go the other way [and vote ‘yes’],” the official said.
Murphy, who campaigned heavily on a pro-cannabis platform in 2017, was disappointed by the announcement, but said in a statement he has “faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November.“
“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,” the governor said.
Several polls released over the last two years suggest a solid majority of New Jersey residents support marijuana legalization. Even so, NJ RAMP —an affiliate of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana — has already said it plans to fight the measure at the ballot box.
Should voters approve the referendum, it would be up to the Legislature to take action to grant oversight of the adult use industry to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which was previously established through medical marijuana legislation passed earlier this year.
“We fell some votes short in the Senate [but] the campaign still continues,” said Holley, who’d been a primary sponsor of the recreational use bill in the Assembly. “I’ll continue to advocate and raise the issues I’ve raised since day one about the harms this has done to minority communities.”
Monday’s announcement marks the conclusion of a long odyssey for the Democrat’s recreational use bill, which was originally scheduled for a vote in March after months of protracted negotiations between Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
That vote was scuttled after Sweeney and Murphy failed to whip up the necessary 21 votes in the upper house. A majority of Assembly members supported the bill.
Two months later, amid an escalating feud between Murphy and South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross over tax incentives, Sweeney said there wasn’t a viable path forward for the bill’s passage, laying some blame on the administration’s efforts to unilaterally expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.
Sweeney reversed course several months later, saying he’d like to give the legislation another shot with some technical revisions to accommodate regulatory changes established through the state’s new medical marijuana law, NJ A20 (18R), along with criminal justice reforms that have since been included in subsequent legislation.
Both bills had previously been linked to the fate of recreational use legislation.
This article originally appeared here in https://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2019/11/18/new-jersey-marijuana-legalization-bill-dead-lawmakers-will-let-voters-decide-1227894