New Jersey’s top lawmaker said Tuesday he was giving up on the effort to legalize recreational marijuana through the Legislature and would instead put the issue up for voters to decide next year.
Senate President Steve Sweeney also said he would move forward with bills to expand the state’s medical cannabis program and expunge existing marijuana convictions.
In a press conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, Sweeney acknowledged that he and other supporters of legal pot — including Gov. Phil Murphy — had failed to secure enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill. He said it now makes sense to put the issue to voters in 2020, when turnout will be the strongest.
“It’s something I believe strongly in, but the votes aren’t there. I’m disappointed,” Sweeney said, but added: “The 2020 general election, I think, will be successful, and we will move forward with adult use.”
Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he’ll work with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and sponsors to “update” the legislation and get the bills passed by the end of June.
Sweeney had tied the legalization bill, NJ S2703 (18R), to the two other measures relating to the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry and criminal justice reform.
The first, NJ S10 (18R), is a bipartisan bill that would expand the state’s medical cannabis program by increasing monthly prescription amounts to three ounces and creating separate permits for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries. The bill also allows physician assistants and advanced practice nurses to prescribe medical cannabis to patients.
The Murphy administration, through the Department of Health, moved to replicate some of what’s in the bill earlier this week — most notably by breaking up the permits for different types of cannabis businesses.
Another bill, NJ A4498 (18R), created new processes for clearing old criminal records. Individuals would be eligible for the new form of expungement — called “clean slate” in the legislation — if they’re at least 10 years removed from their most recent conviction, fine, satisfactory completion of probation or parole or release from incarceration.
Separate language in the legalization bill would have allowed ex-offenders to expunge third-degree marijuana distribution felonies from their records, essentially allowing anyone who had possessed up to five pounds to clear their name.
The inclusion of that language kept some moderate Democrats, like Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington), and some Republicans from supporting legalization, multiple sources told POLITICO. Sweeney said the five-pound level is too high.
Sweeney and Coughlin canceled a scheduled vote on all three measures in March after it became clear the recreational legislation didn’t have enough support to pass in the Senate. Legislative leaders, along with Murphy, were hopeful the Democrat-controlled Legislature would take another crack at the bills this month, but that didn’t happen.
The Senate president appeared to put some of the blame on Murphy, saying the governor’s decision to announce a unilateral expansion of the medical marijuana program removed some of the pressure.
“The focus was taken off the recreational use and, again, it wasn’t an easy vote to get to start with,” Sweeney said.
Sam Sutton contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine