Despite pulling a much-anticipated vote to legalize marijuana, due to lack of support in the Senate, the state’s three top lawmakers vowed to not give up on legalization efforts.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, announced Monday afternoon that he was canceling the vote on the legalization proposal, Senate Bill 2703, saying he could not get the 21 votes needed for it to pass in the Senate.
S2703’s companion measure, Assembly Bill 4497, had its necessary 41 votes to pass, but lawmakers in the lower house did not want it to go through without the Senate. The bills call for legalizing marijuana at $42 an ounce and for a five-person Cannabis Regulatory Commission to handle regulations, licensing, oversight and violations.
“I’m confident that we would have been able to pass that bill today, and the Assembly, I believe, would have had a sufficient amount of votes,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, said Monday afternoon.
History is rarely made at the first attempt. History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts, of progress and of setbacks.
Late Monday, Sweeney, Coughlin and Gov. Phil Murphy appeared in a rare joint press conference and vowed to continue their push forward with what they said would be “historic legislation.”
“History is rarely made at the first attempt. History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts, of progress and of setbacks,” Murphy said, flanked by Coughlin, Sweeney, as well as Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, and Assemblyman Jamal Holly, D-20th District, both major backers of the legal cannabis bill.
“But eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down,” Murphy added.
“I’m disappointed,” Sweeney said following news of the cancellation.
“That does in no way mean that we’ve failed or we’re walking away from it,” Sweeney added. “[Gov. Phil Murphy] made one hell of an effort himself, and we’ll be back at this. So anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong. We’re going to get back and one way or another, we’re going to get this passed.”
Murphy said that this week and every week, more than 600 New Jersey residents will be arrested for marijuana-related offenses and that the money used for enforcement would be better used to go toward housing, health care and other public services.
Coughlin added, at a presser earlier that day: “What’s really important is that the three leaders were together in this, and united in this and then moved forward together.”
He said at the press conference with Murphy and Sweeney that he would like New Jersey to be a “national model” for marijuana-legalization.
Sweeney initially said he would likely not hold a vote until the lame duck season following the midterm elections in November, especially out of concerns that if he tried to push forward with the bill during budget talks, which end in July, it might be used as a bargaining chip.
But he shifted his stance on Monday, indicating he would be ready to hold a vote as soon as he knew he had the 21 necessary votes.
“It’s too early to tell,” Coughlin said, when a vote in both houses would be, but he floated the possibility of “a window of opportunity between now and the budget season.
All three expressed a desire to steer clear of a ballot question before voters.
Out of the 11 states that have legalized marijuana, only Vermont has done it through legislation.
“We know the public overwhelmingly supports this,” Murphy said. “I think we believe we can get it done legislatively, and secondly it’s a better result if we can get it done legislatively.”
In the meantime, the Murphy administration plans to roll out a so-called “contingency plan” in “the next day or two” to vastly expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program as much as possible without the requirement of legislative approval.
The medicinal marijuana program services over 42,000 patients with the six alternative treatment centers where patients could buy medicinal cannabis, and there are plans to open six more ATCs.
Murphy said his plan calls for “many multiples” of that number.
S2703 was part of a package of bills including Senate Bill 10, which would vastly expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program, and Assembly Bill 4498, which would set up the process of expungement of low-level marijuana criminal offenses.
But without the medicinal marijuana legislation, the expansion could only go so far. For one, the bill would have phased out the sales tax by 2024 on medicinal marijuana, removed the limit on how much medical marijuana a patient can have at one time, enact employee protections for patients and set aside a certain percentage of licenses for women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses.
All three bills were linked together and had to be pulled as well, Sweeney said, and both Coughlin and Murphy agreed with that approach.
Decriminalization by itself leaves the market “in the hands of the bad guys,” Murphy said, while passing just an expungement bill leads to continued marijuana arrests.
But Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District and perhaps the most vocal opponent of the recreational marijuana bill, said decriminalization and criminal records expungement for cannabis offenses should be handled separately.
“I agree with [Sweeney] that we should have learned a lesson about the process of legalizing recreational marijuana, which is much different than medical marijuana,” Rice, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus and represents Newark, said Monday in a prepared statement.
“We should be pushing for legislation on the decriminalization of recreational marijuana. We should be promulgating for it, especially if it’s not about money and all about social justice like the governor says it is,” Rice added.
The bundling of all three bills also drew the ire of Sen. Kip Bateman, R-16th District, who was unhappy the proposals could not be voted on separately.
“I truly believe there is bipartisan support for significant marijuana reforms, including the expansion of our medical marijuana program and decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Bateman said Monday in a prepared statement.
“Unfortunately, we were presented an all or nothing proposition on some poorly structured bills, which doomed the potential for achieving significant marijuana reform from the start.”