Mar. 25, 2019, 12:46 p.m.: This story has been updated.
After nearly a year and a half of debate, both houses of the New Jersey state legislature were expected to vote on a controversial cannabis legislation bill on Monday. Yet the vote has been called off, according to a statement from State Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
“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,” Sweeney said.
— Nick Corasaniti (@NYTnickc) March 25, 2019
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act would have legalized and taxed the recreational use of marijuana. It would also have expanded the medical marijuana program by making it tax-free and more accessible; expunged marijuana possession-related charges from people’s criminal records and regulated the sale of up to one ounce of marijuana to people over 21, in “a similar fashion to the regulation of alcohol for adults,” according to the bill.
For the past few months, Gov. Phil Murphy, who campaigned for office on a platform of legalization, and Democratic state lawmakers had been hard at work trying to garner support from state legislators. Yet the bill reportedly did not get the 21 votes necessary to pass in the state senate, with some lawmakers concerned that legalization could pose a threat to public safety. Another vote likely won’t take place until at least November, according to Sweeney.
Marijuana legalization has garnered a great deal of support from New Jerseyans, 6 out of 10 of whom support legalization, according to a Monmouth University poll from last month. (Nearly three-quarters also support expunging previous criminal offenses related to marijuana possession, according to the poll.)
The battle to legalize marijuana in the state has been so contentious that celebrities have gotten involved, advocating for local lawmakers to pass the bill. Last weekend, Whoopi Goldberg, who has a home in West Orange, NJ, personally made calls to lawmakers urging them to approve the bill. Goldberg has been an outspoken advocate for legalization, writing in an op-ed in USA Today that she regularly uses cannabis to relieve headaches related to glaucoma.
“For countless adults across New Jersey, myself included, marijuana has never been about getting high just for the sake of it,” she wrote in the op-ed. “And, that’s something that lawmakers on Monday need to remember. The unhinged and dire doomsday prophecies of some simply have not come to fruition elsewhere, nor will they in New Jersey.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D. – N.J.), who is currently running for president, also issued a statement on Friday voicing strong support for the bill, noting that African-American offenders are disproportionately penalized by existing marijuana laws. (In New Jersey in particular, three times as many African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that both groups have similar rates of marijuana use.)
“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said.
Had the bill passed, New Jersey would have become the eleventh state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, not counting the District of Columbia.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Tyler McFadden, northeast political associate for NORML, chalked up the failure of the legalization bill to state legislators’ lack of flexibility.
“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” McFadden said.
“Criminalization is a policy that results in over 35,000 marijuana-related arrests annually in New Jersey — mostly for low-level marijuana possession. These arrests do not promote public safety, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and disproportionately impact the poor and communities of color. It is pivotal that leadership continues to move forward to address and enact needed marijuana law reforms in New Jersey, including efforts to expunge past low-level marijuana convictions.”
In a statement to NJ Live, Sweeney promised to keep working toward legalization.
“We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward,” Sweeney said. “While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”