Cannabis Collapse: New Jersey Lawmakers Call Off Legalization Vote

Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, speaks to reporters in Trenton, NJ, Monday, March 25, 2019. New Jersey's Senate president says there are not enough votes to pass a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The vote in that chamber has been postponed. (Seth Wenig/AP)

After months of intense debate and lobbying from both sides, legislation that would have legalized adult-use cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from consideration on Monday. The votes, Senate President Stephen Sweeney says, just aren’t there yet.

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All told, three bills were taken off the table: one to legalize cannabis for adult use, another related to expunging criminal cannabis convictions, and a third that would have improved New Jersey’s long-languishing medical cannabis program.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned hard on legalization, was reportedly “burning up the phones” during the past week in an effort to nudge reticent lawmakers toward a yes vote. But despite Democrats controlling both the state Assembly and Senate, the push fell short.

“History is rarely made on the very first try,” Murphy posted on Twitter on Monday afternoon. “But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.”

“I may have underestimated the challenge of getting this passed.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney

Passage of the bill would have made New Jersey the 11th state to legalize cannabis for adult-use. And though Murphy made it a key piece of his campaign, history suggests he had an uphill battle: Only one legal-cannabis state—Vermont—has legalized cannabis for adult use via its state legislature. All other legal states have ended prohibition through ballot initiatives.

“I may have underestimated the challenge of getting this passed,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said at a press conference Monday after the vote was called off. But both he and the governor reasserted their commitment to legalization.

“We’ll be back at this,” Sweeney said at a news conference Monday shortly after the vote was called off. “Anybody who thinks this is dead is wrong.”

While today’s adjournment may be only a temporary political setback for Murphy, the delay means residents will continue to face arrest and prosecution. New Jersey sees roughly 37,500 people arrested on cannabis charges each year.

Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU-NJ, said ahead of Monday’s news that “a no vote would debase the experiences of the 30,000-plus people who are arrested each year in our state for marijuana possession, people who are disproportionately Black and Brown, whose lives are interrupted and ruined for a substance that the majority of New Jerseyans believe should be legal.

“The number of possession arrests has only continued to rise,” Sinha continued, “and if prohibition continues, we have no reason to suspect those arrests would abate.”

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Some lawmakers whom legalization proponents had hoped would put their support behind legalization ultimately got cold feet. Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Neshanic Station) is a moderate Republican whose yes vote was seen as critical to securing the bill’s passage. In 2016, Bateman was among about a dozen New Jersey lawmakers who visited Colorado to get a firsthand look at that state’s cannabis system. At the time he called it an eye-opener.

”Heroin overdoses in Colorado are way down. So are DUIs, and so is crime,” Bateman told Leafly. “What also jumped out at me is how secure [the cannabis stores] are as far as keeping it away from children. They had armed guards at the door to prevent anyone under 21 from entering the facility. So they’re aware of the concerns with keeping this away from children. It was a real eye-opener.”

But late last week, via Twitter, he signaled he still wasn’t on-board.

“I have too many outstanding concerns,” Bateman said. “I will vote ‘no’ on Monday”

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Bateman had repeatedly stressed the importance of striking an across-the-aisle deal on legalization, saying that “an issue of this magnitude should be a bipartisan legislative effort.”

But several sources tell Leafly that moderate GOP lawmakers felt shut out at critical junctions, including during a recent hearing where Republican members of a Senate committee they said weren’t able to review the bill in advance of a vote.

“With minutes to go,” Bateman said in a statement, “Senate Republican members of the Judiciary Committee still haven’t seen a final copy of legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use.”

State Could ‘Open Up’ Medical System

Monday’s decision to call off cannabis votes in the capital was also bad news for the state’s 43,000 medical cannabis patients, who currently pay up to $520 per ounce—plus sales tax. While other states have seen prices fall after legalization, New Jersey’s medical program has matured much more slowly than most. Nearly 10 years after medical cannabis became law, there are still only six dispensaries across the entire state.

Gov. Murphy said that he and his team could take drastic measures to expand medical cannabis in light of the legislative delay.

“We’ll have no choice, maybe as early as Tuesday to open [the program] up dramatically,” he said late last week, explaining that he and Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal would “dramatically open up the medical marijuana licensing regime, because people’s lives are at stake.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Gov. Phil Murphy. It was in fact Senate President Stephen Sweeney who said, “I may have underestimated the challenge of getting this passed,” at a press conference Monday.