New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Effort Goes Up In Smoke

A once-promising effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is instead destined to die on the legislative back-burner this session.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) on Wednesday said he won’t push for a vote on the measure, claiming he couldn’t wrangle enough votes for it.

“We are not going to move forward” with the bill to legalize adult use of marijuana, Sweeney said at a press conference. “It’s something I feel strongly [about], but the votes aren’t there.” 

Instead, New Jersey will seek to “dramatically” expand its medical marijuana program while simultaneously expunging marijuana criminal records, he said.

The move surprised some advocates, as both Sweeney and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) have championed legal weed, and polls have shown strong public support in the state for legalizing recreational marijuana use.

Instead of joining Vermont as the only other state to have legalized marijuana via the legislature, New Jersey constituents will likely vote on it in 2020 as a ballot initiative.

In late March, the legalization bill was scheduled for a vote in both the state Senate and Assembly. According to the Asbury Park Press, it had enough votes to clear the Assembly but was between one-to-three votes shy in the Senate. 

Then an investigation into one of Sweeney’s most prominent supporters, George E. Norcross III, found Norcross and his associates were on the receiving end of more than $1 billion in suspicious tax breaks in the state. Amid the fallout and the damage to his clout, Sweeney postponed the legalization vote.

Advocates aren’t giving up hope, however. Amol Sinha, the executive director of ACLU New Jersey, says it’s a matter of when ― not if.

“I think we were very close,” Sinha told HuffPost. “Unfortunately there’s a lot going on in the world of politics in New Jersey and we tend to get easily distracted. We should be able to think about more than one thing at a time and just because there’s a sourness about one issue it shouldn’t disadvantage all of New Jersey.”

He added, “Politics is holding justice hostage.”

Politics is holding justice hostage.
Amol Sinha, ACLU New Jersery

Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is optimistic about the prospects for a 2020 ballot initiative.

The legislative proposal failed “mostly for reasons related to the sort of petty politics and insider dealing that the American people have grown to despise in our government, and less about marijuana specifically,” he said in an emailed statement.

“While lawmakers in Trenton seem to have kicked the can down the road, we are confident the voters in New Jersey will send them an unambiguous message in 2020: State residents are sick and tired of failed prohibitionist policies and overwhelmingly want to move towards the legalization and regulation of marijuana.”

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