EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is hosting a two-day business and networking conference March 9-10, featuring some of the state’s most prominent industry leaders. Early-bird registration is open. Tickets are limited.
It’s taken a handful of bills, dozens of lawmakers and activists, hours of testimony and nearly 2.7 million voters to get New Jersey to legalize weed.
The catch — it hasn’t worked yet.
Many thought marijuana would become legal in Gov. Phil Murphy’s first 100 days in office. Well, he’s been Garden State’s governor for more than 1,100 days now, and he’s signed no legal weed bills.
A deadline of Feb. 8 for action on his part looms.
This is the closest the Garden State has come to legalizing marijuana after a long series of fits and starts spanning three years.
Here are several other times New Jersey tried to legalize, and the ways they fell through.
Despite excitement amid Murphy taking office and making marijuana reform a key tenet of his platform, the legislative process got off to a slow start.
After Murphy’s first 100 days in office had come to an end, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, introduced a legalization bill. But he tied it to an expansion of the medical marijuana program in a move that troubled other lawmakers.
Expanding the medical program was a popular idea, but legalization had yet to win over as many votes.
The move also came with a tight time frame by arriving just weeks before the Legislature’s budget deadline.
“I’m going to give it a shot. But we are running out of time,” Scutari said at the time.
After a summer of shaky negotiations and infighting, lawmakers unveiled a new marijuana bill that uncoupled legalization from the medical program.
It called a low tax rate of 10% on marijuana sales, delivery and places for users to smoke outside of their homes.
An agreement, one of several between Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, emerged on legalization and gave officials hope they could swiftly pass a legal weed bill.
The three top Democrats had decided to tax marijuana by weight and also outlined the process for appointees for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. They set a deadline of March 25 to get the legislation passed, the latest they could foresee working on it before the budget process ate up time through the summer.
The bill passed committees in March following hours of debate.
But on the eve of voting sessions to pass the bill, Sweeney pulled the votes for a lack of support in the Senate.
“We’ll be back at this,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said. “So anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”
He vowed to return to the issue during 2019, and said a vote would be held as soon he had 21 votes in the Senate to pass it.
Walking back his earlier plan, Sweeney announced he would abandon legislative efforts to legalize marijuana, instead moving toward a ballot referendum to let the people decide in 2020.
Lawmakers shifted focus on a bill to expand the medical marijuana program and another to expunge records of those convicted of marijuana possession.
Both of those passed by the end of the year.
But the legalization announcement came as a blow to advocates and Democratic lawmakers and Murphy, all of whom had hoped to avoid a referendum.
“There’s no sense dragging this out,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said at a news conference at the Statehouse. “I’m disappointed.”
Sweeney reversed his course again, saying lawmakers would take another swing at legalizing weed before the end of the year.
That hope came after he, Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin had all agreed (yet again) on final language in a bill.
The expansion of the medical program and talks to decriminalize marijuana both renewed support for legalization. Some said it was the only way to truly expand access for patients and to stop disproportionate arrests for minorities.
Old issues reared their heads again, causing Sweeney to finally abandon legislative efforts to legalize marijuana. He and Scutari announced they would instead put the issue to the voters on the ballot, unable to secure the necessary 21 votes to pass it.
They instead introduced a ballot question that punted the decision to the people. Lawmakers voted to put it on the ballot for the November 2020 general election.
November 2020 — January 2021
Voters approved the ballot question asking if marijuana should be legalized for those 21 and older by a two-to-one margin.
But that did not mean people could legally light up immediately. Scutari within days introduced another bill to legalize weed and establish a market that could sell it, pulling pieces from past failed attempts .
Lawmakers debated tax rates, employee drug testing and the number of licenses over a tumultuous month. They eventually announced an agreement between the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office.
On Dec. 17, both chambers passed the historic legislation, marking the first time they held successful floor votes on legalization. Murphy was expected to sign the bills into law.
But just before the new year, an unforeseen issue arose. Murphy said he could not sign the bills until lawmakers passed a third piece of legislation to clear up discrepancies on penalties for those under 21. (The legalization bill made underage possession a disorderly persons offense, but the decriminalization ended possession penalties for all ages. Neither approach was acceptable to the governor).
Murphy sent informal recommendations back to lawmakers, who introduced a bill related to those suggestions. It swiftly passed two legislative committees, but fell apart the following day when members of the Black Legislative Caucus joined together to oppose the change.
The issue stalled for three more weeks as Murphy tried to negotiate with lawmakers. He has not issued a conditional veto of either the legalization or decriminalization bills.
Lawmakers last week introduced a new cleanup bill — but it doesn’t look much different from the past ditched effort. It passed an Assembly committee but has yet to be scheduled for other votes or introduced in the Senate.
There are only a few days left for the legislature to pass that bill. If they don’t, Murphy will have to sign or veto the bills on his desk. A veto would bounce the issue back to lawmakers yet again.
“We had a really good zoom with the Black Caucus on Friday morning,” Murphy said Wednesday during a briefing on the coronavirus outbreak in Trenton. “Really productive. Not to say that we solved all the challenges, but it was a really good, frankly, constructive discussion.”
Scutari, too, said Wednesday discussions were ongoing on a Senate cleanup bill. He noted that deadline could be moved if the legislative calendar is changed.
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