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No room to grow

The Legislature’s marijuana legalization efforts have been reduced to ashes amid the political battle over tax breaks

Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned for months to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use and wipe away low-level criminal records for cannabis-related offenses. Now, 17 months into the Democrat’s term, the prospects of legalization and decriminalization remain distant.

Lawmakers were attempting to push through a package of bills to legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana for adults over 21 and accomplish other medical and social justice goals. But efforts stalled in March after the state Senate was unable to muster the necessary 21 votes, prompting Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, to pull the vote on March 25. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, said that week that the Assembly had at least the minimum 41 votes needed, but that the measure would not go ahead without the Senate.

The state’s top elected officials agree on legalization, but couldn’t get it done. – AARON HOUSTON


May was considered the last chance to vote on the package before budget talks heated up, but legislative leaders quashed that idea in favor of a statewide referendum on the issue in 2020. “We aren’t going to go forward with adult-use marijuana at this time, it’s something I believe strongly in, but the votes aren’t there and we can’t hold back progress,” Sweeney said at a May 15 news conference.

The legalization effort became mired in Trenton’s preoccupation with the political battle between Murphy and Sweeney over the state’s multi-billion dollar tax break program.  “If it’s being discussed, it’s being discussed by just like very few people,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions, who requested anonymity to speak freely on the matter. “Nobody’s trying to find out ‘hey can we move this person from the no column to the yes column’?”

Sweeney also blamed Murphy’s plans to greatly expand the state’s medical marijuana program, which the governor announced as the legislative process was grinding to a halt. “When they announced the expansion of medical, it just ended any chance of this [passing], Sweeney said.

Whatever the cause, legalization of recreational marijuana is dead and it will be up to the voters to revive it.

Intraparty rift

Since January, the Murphy administration has been criticizing the Grow New Jersey tax incentive program, expanded in 2013 under then-Gov. Chris Christie. Sweeney has been supportive of Grow NJ and touted its economic benefit to cities such as Jersey City, Newark and, most important, Camden. The focus on Camden put Murphy into direct conflict with Sweeney and South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.

Murphy dismissed the notion that the dispute over tax breaks was jeopardizing the marijuana legalization efforts. “They literally have nothing to do with each other,” Murphy said in Newark on May 6.

Trenton insiders, though, say the controversy took a toll.

“I think there’s some folks that are on the cusp, given the high tensions between officials, that were maybe inclined to support” the bill, but have backed off, said another person close to the discussions. “It’s definitely not as receptive now, because it’s almost like the tension has definitely been elevated. I do think those folks weren’t yes votes to begin with, but maybe there could have been some wiggle room,” this person added. “You’re not as receptive to conversations whereas before they would have had conversations and some mobility.”

Counting the votes

Two Essex County Democrats — Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District, and former governor and current Sen. Richard Codey, D-27th District, — are both committed no votes.

Other North Jersey Democrats on the no side include Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo, D-36th District; Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-38th District; and Sen. Brian Stack, D-33rd District.

Several South Jersey Democrats are also opposed to varying degrees: Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, D-1st District; Sen. James Beach, D-6th District; Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-8th District; and Sen. Fred Madden, D-4th District.


Sarlo, in a May opinion piece published by the Asbury Park Press, and in speaking with NJBIZ, said he wants the state to vote separately on the medical marijuana legislation.

Sweeney acknowledged on May 13 that he still lacked the votes in the state Senate. Lawmakers were spooked about how expungement of cannabis-related offenses would work for possession of between one ounce and five pounds.

Although the state law treats possession of any amount within that range in the same way, lawmakers were worried that only a drug-dealer would have up to five pounds of cannabis at a single time and not a run-of-the-mill user.

Lawmakers were also worried about how close to a school a person could use or sell cannabis, especially in densely populated urban neighborhoods where school zones and residential and commercial districts frequently overlap, and where punishment for offenses are much harsher.

The expansion effect

Murphy’s plans to extend the medical marijuana program also may have helped sink recreational legalization. Sweeney had warned that the administration’s expansion proposal and relaxation of several rules governing the program only served to make the legalization efforts even more difficult. The senate president worried this expansion would be perceived as “de facto legalization,” and scare off lawmakers on the fence about approving the recreational bill.


“Obviously it’s getting harder and harder, and with the governor’s announcement, the expansion of the medical program today, I’ve said this before, it didn’t help the adult-use,” Sweeney said on May 13.

“The day the administration announced and we asked them not to and they did it anyway,” Sweeney added. “So at the end, I didn’t get to 21, but the governor couldn’t get any votes out of his own party either.”

The administration is pushing ahead with the expansion. “The Department of Health today announced that it is adopting common-sense rules to expand patient access to medical marijuana,” Murphy spokesperson Alyana Alfaro, said in a statement to NJBIZ. “The rule change is the result of [Executive Order] 6, which was signed in January of 2018, and mandated a review of the medical marijuana program by DOH.

“The Department’s rule-change proposal was announced in June of 2018 and today marks their formal adoption,” she added. “Gov. Murphy remains committed to working with the Legislature to further reform our medical marijuana program and to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana, a critical step in eliminating disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Among the changes is the creation of  separate permitting systems for cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing of medicinal cannabis — a move that would increase the supply in the market. But proponents see legislative action as necessary.


“The medical bill goes down as a casualty” if the recreational bill does not pass, said Tara Sargente, executive director of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association before Sweeney announced that there would be no vote in the Legislature. “That really is a good bill. There’s a lot to expand patient-access, different types of medicine. We’re overdue for adult-use, but we’re grossly overdue to expand medical.”

The medical cannabis bill would phase out the sales tax on medicinal marijuana; ensure workplace protections for participants in the medical marijuana program; ensure that a set number of medicinal dispensaries go to women, veterans and people of color; and lift the cap on how much medicinal cannabis a patient can own at a single time from one to three ounces.

In the weeks before the ill-fated March 25 legalization vote, Murphy announced that his administration would ramp up the state’s existing medical marijuana program starting in May if the vote failed.

“We’re not going to wait around a lot,” Murphy said in Saddle Brook in March. “We’re holding back enormous demand for the medical regime … I’m prepared to hold off for a short amount of time and I would say that the month of May would be the edge of that.”

The medicinal marijuana expansion recently attracted rare bipartisan support, with many Republican lawmakers backing the idea even though all of them have opposed the recreational bill.

“Medical marijuana expansion should have been passed months ago,” Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-24th District, said in a May 14 statement. “New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is too expensive for patients who have to pay out of pocket, and there aren’t enough dispensaries for people to conveniently access their medicine.” He argued that the bill is stalled because of the Democrats’ internecine warfare.

Other Republican lawmakers agreed, including Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-23th District, and Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District.

“The time has come to come together, accept our current political climate and severe the connection. We should pass stand-alone medical expansion now,” O’Scanlon said in a statement.

“The only reason to tax a person’s medicine is for revenue. That is completely immoral,” DiMaio said. “The number of people benefiting from medical marijuana is growing, but the state’s cost is still too much to be considered anything better than a pharmaceutical company price gouging patients.”

What will the people decide?


All three leading Democrats in Trenton had said they wanted to avoid putting legalization on a statewide ballot, although that course was always a possibility.

“The referendum has always been out there as an option,” Murphy said in May. “Only one state has done this legislatively. That’s Vermont. We have felt that this is a better way to go. It takes more courage. It’s a tough vote for many. We understand that. That’s still, in my opinion, the preferred route. I want to exhaust that with legislative leadership before we talk about a plan B.”

Plan B is now a reality. And 2020 has been the target for some time.  “If we were to do a referendum, it would be in 2020, when you know the outcome would be positive,” Sweeney said on May 13. “With a presidential race topping the ballot, turnout will be high and polls suggest that most voters favor legalization.”

Proponents of legalization were also never enamored of the referendum approach, citing the time it would take to put the necessary rules and institutions in place.

“I’d like to see some time and energy still be carved out” for the cannabis legislation, Sargente said.  “Because if this gets pulled, we could be looking at 2021 by the time everything plays out.

“They’re going to send it to the ballot in the presidential year, so if we don’t get it done at the end of May, it’s going to be a hard road ahead,” Sargente added. “If that doesn’t happen, then we still have medical and we’re just going to work very hard.”

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at