Bid to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Sputters in NJ

Marijuana plants grow in a tomato greenhouse being renovated to grow pot in Delta, British Columbia, on Sept. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Unable to wrangle the necessary votes at the end of legislative session Monday, Democratic lawmakers sidelined a bid Monday to make the Garden State the 11th to legalize recreational marijuana.

The 176-page bill, which Governor Phil Murphy had vowed to sign, would have legalized marijuana use for those 21 years and older, created a tax structure for the product, and allowed those with weed arrests the opportunity to expunge their records.

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in a statement.

Governor Murphy campaigned heavily on the issue and has pushed hard to legalize the drug over the last year. At one point last week, he told reporters “it’s Monday or never.”

Sweeney had a somewhat softer take, saying if the bill wasn’t passed on the Legislature’s last day it would likely need to wait until 2020. “Trying to move a marijuana bill during a budget break is not healthy,” he told reporters last week. 

Democrats called off the vote today after an unsuccessful effort over the weekend to wrangle 21 Senate votes.

Many prominent Democratic politicians in New Jersey have publicly called for legalization, including Mayors Ras Baraka and Steven Fulop.

Celebrities turned out as well in recent weeks to support the measure. Whoopi Goldberg, who owns a company that sells medical marijuana, said legalization was not only a health issue — she credits marijuana as helping relieve her glaucoma-related headaches — but also a social-justice issue.

First-time offenders would have seen their marijuana convictions wiped clean if the bill passed Monday, and nonviolent crimes involving possession or distribution of up to 5 pounds of marijuana would have been expunged.

Opponents said the legislation would wreak havoc on the state. Senator Michael Doherty, R-Warren, called the bill a “deal with the devil that sacrifices children and communities for short-term political gain.” He said expungement would actually “let hardcore dealers with recent arrests off the hook.”

Financially, supporters of the bill said it would have been a boon to cash-strapped New Jersey. Under the bill, marijuana users would have paid a $42-per-ounce tax. New Jersey towns could have levied additional taxes of 1 percent on marijuana wholesalers, 2 percent on processors and 3 percent on dispensaries.

The bill also included a focus on small business and minorities, requiring 10 percent of marijuana business licenses go to small businesses and about 30 percent of the licenses go to woman- and minority-owned dispensaries in certain “impact zones,” such as Newark and Camden.

Murphy has estimated the state could reap nearly $60 million in 2020 from legalized recreational marijuana.

Much of the money collected likely would have gone to police, who will need to hire new experts in detecting marijuana intoxication for field sobriety tests, among other things.

Dozens of municipalities around the state have already voted, however, to ban the burgeoning weed industry from opening up shop. Purchasing marijuana would still be legal in those towns and villages. The downside for those towns is they would lose out on tax revenue.

New Jersey spends about $127 million per year on policing marijuana possession, according to the legislation.

The bill also would have established a five-member regulatory commission, made up of three members selected by the governor and two members chosen by legislative leaders, would oversee cannabis growing and selling in the state.

A Pew survey released last fall found that more 6 in 10 Americans favor marijuana legalization.

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