TRENTON, N.J. – Legalizing recreational cannabis in New Jersey just took a major hit.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney has announced he is abandoning plans to pass a bill to legalize cannabis through the state legislature. Sweeney now intends to hand the issue off to voters who can decide the fate of legal cannabis at the ballot box in November 2020.
New Jersey Democrats will still try to move forward on plans to expand the state’s medicinal cannabis program. The legislature also is seeking to expunge the records of residents with previous convictions for low-level cannabis possession. However, without legalizing non-medical cannabis possession it is unclear how the state would navigate this. Would they expunge convictions for possession still illegal under current law? Would a decriminalization bill be attached to any efforts to expunge previous records?
The soap opera of pot legalization in New Jersey has been airing since 2017 when current Governor Phil Murphy was running for office. Murphy made cannabis legalization one of the cornerstones of his gubernatorial campaign. Many expected a quick plan for legalization to take shape but it seems there was a misreading of the political tea leaves. State Democrats seemed surprised at the resistance to legalization by some GOP legislators and were unable to muster enough votes in March.
Ultimately, the fate of legal cannabis now rests in the hands of residents, which is not necessarily a bad thing for those seeking reform, though will take more time than legislative action.
“The voters have always led the politicians when it comes to cannabis reform,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told mg. “If they are going to punt on the issue and turn it over to the voters they should be prepared to abide by the will of the people.”
Former Florida Governor Rick Scott added a ban on smokeable flower before enacting voter-approved provisions in Amendment 2 in Florida, which included no language on such a ban when voters took up the issue. Last year, Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill to legalize recreational cannabis despite voters approving Question 1.
Sweeney feels it is time to move beyond the political defeat.
“There’s no sense dragging this out,” Sweeney said at a news conference. “I’m disappointed.”
“We did our best,” he added. “The votes just aren’t there.”
It is unclear why state Democrats were so confident a recreational cannabis bill would sail through the legislature. State GOP lawmakers, as a whole, did not signal a political appetite to approve legal cannabis. Were the votes ever really there?
Despite the setback Democratic leader Sweeney is optimistic voters will legalize cannabis in 2020. “If you believe any of the polls, we’ll be successful,” he said.