A vote on a bill that would legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults was pulled after lawmakers were unable to rustle up enough support in the state Senate to get the bill through the Legislature.
The controversial measure had just enough support in the Assembly to pass the 41-vote threshold, according to people close to the discussions, but proponents fell short in the upper house.
“I’m disappointed,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said in a press conference following news of the cancellation. “If it was easy, every state would have done it this way.”
“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.”
Likewise, Murphy said he was disappointed but vowed to make sure a bill got to his desk.
“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 at a press conference late Monday afternoon, flanked by legislative leaders including Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Criag Coughlin, D-19th District, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, a major backer of the legal cannabis bill.
“But eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down,” Murphy added.
What’s really important is that the three leaders were together in this, and united in this and then moved forward together.
Murphy said that this week and every week, more than 600 New Jersey residents will be arrested for pot-related offenses and that the money used for enforcement would be better to go towards 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 will not likely hold a vote on the measure until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections in November, and has vowed his opposition to legalizing adult-use marijuana through 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.”
But Sweeney said Monday he would push through the vote as soon as he knew he had enough votes, and not necessarily opt for waiting until after November.
Lawmakers were only able to amass roughly 17 votes, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District – one of the largest backers in the state of the legal cannabis bill, said that will be the biggest hurdle for legalizing marijuana.
“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 vote,” Coughlin said.
“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 before now and the budget season.”
Monday’s package included one measure that would expand the state’s medicinal marijuana program, and another that would allow for the expungement of low-level marijuana cannabis offenses.
All three bills were linked together and had to be pulled as well, Sweeney said, and both Coughlin and Murphy agreed with that approach.
Some lawmakers said those measures should be voted on separately.
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.
But the governor disputed that any of the three bills can be handled by themselves —decriminalization by itself leaves the market “in the hands of the bad guys,” while passing just an expungement bill leads to continued marijuana arrests.
But, the Murphy administration said it will begin the process as soon as “the next day or two” to dramatically expand the existing medicinal marijuana program, well beyond the six existing alternative treatment centers – which service roughly 42,000 patients – where patients can obtain the product.
Under the so-called “contingency plan” the state would have “many multiples” of that number, Murphy said.