Legal pot clears hurdle but votes for approval ‘not there yet’
A proposal to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana for recreational use by adults in New Jersey was endorsed Monday by Senate and Assembly committees.
The approvals by the Senate Judiciary and Assembly Appropriations committees set the bill up for possible final approval in a week, though it remains unclear whether the plan would have the votes needed for passage.
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said legalization is “just adding on to the pile of ills” that affect a “sick society” already dealing with alcohol abuse, opioid abuse, families without fathers, inner-city crime, public schools that don’t work, obesity, pornography and pedophilia.
“Society is falling apart. Let’s face it,” Doherty said. “Society is falling apart. On this track, our society will be extinct in the next few decades. It’s not going to go on like this.”
Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, the plan’s lead sponsor, said there are people using marijuana in New Jersey “all the time” already. He said the bill isn’t an endorsement of marijuana use but a recognition of reality.
“The sky has not fallen in Colorado. It’s not going to fall here in New Jersey,” Scutari said.
“When I think of A-4497, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act, I think of two words: Opportunity and hope,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union.
The committee approvals were expected. Some lawmakers who aren’t normally on those panels temporarily joined them for the day, if only to ensure the bills had the votes. Such maneuvers won’t be available to legislative leaders if the votes are held, as planned, on March 25.
Sen. Kip Bateman, R-Somerset, who has been considered a potential supporter of the legalization proposal, voted against it Monday. He abstained on the two related bills, complaining that lawmakers were being asked to vote on bills they had only just received after the hearing was delayed five hours.
“It’s going to be legal. It’s not going to prevent people from driving high. We know that,” said Bateman, who said that while it’s good the bill provides funding to train police drug-recognition experts, that will not change the six-month delay local prosecutors face in getting lab results from the State Police.
There are 26 Democratic senators, so the bill’s passage doesn’t necessarily require Republican backing to get the needed 21 votes – except that not all the Democrats are for it.
Some are vocal opponents, such as Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex. Then there are others who are more undecided – including Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, who voted for it in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday but said “I am not guaranteeing a vote on the floor for this bill.”
“The problem that I’m having – and this is going to be one of the toughest votes I cast in my legislative career – is that you know on one side you are going to have more drunk driving, under the influence of marijuana, and you are seeing medical studies that indicate marijuana, while not necessarily a gateway drug, it may be a trigger to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Not quite proven, but there’s some early indications,” Smith said.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who returned to New Jersey on Sunday after a four-day trip to Puerto Rico, said he made a series of phone calls to lawmakers starting Monday morning to seek support for the bill.
“It’s going to take a village on this one,” Murphy said, at an unrelated news conference in Fort Lee. “… The Senate president is all-in and has to be on this. The Assembly speaker, Craig Coughlin, is all-in and has to be on this. I am all-in, and I have to be, on this. We need to get this done, if we are to get it done, as a team. Let there be no doubt about it.”
“The conversations have been good, but we’re not there yet. There’s no question that the Senate president, the speaker and I and our collective teams and the leaders in all of those various buckets are going to have to put everything into this to get this done,” Murphy said.
The legalization bill, now 176 pages, is part of a three-bill package that includes changes to the medical marijuana program and an overhaul of the state’s expungement laws to make it easier and faster to erase past convictions from criminal records as the drug is made legal.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale, D-Bergen, joined Doherty in opposing them all. Among his many points was concern about how the initial appointments to the new five-member commission that will oversee the state’s recreational and medical marijuana programs will be directly made by Gov. Phil Murphy, without the need for Senate approval.
“There’s an awful lot of opportunity for mischief, where a lot of money is involved, to have a process like that, where we have abandoned some of the checks and balances normally exercised with respect to commissions which have the opportunity to make people very wealthy,” Cardinale said.
Regarding expungements of nonviolent marijuana convictions, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka pushed for lawmakers to identify ways to make such erasures automatic. That isn’t feasible, sponsors of the plan say, because of incompatible records systems, some of which are still kept on index cards.
“We believe that the onus should not be put on individuals but in fact should be put on the state itself,” Baraka said.
The bill includes “virtual expungement” that would prevent past marijuana convictions from being included in public records releases or used to deny applications for assistance, but true expungement would still require a person to initiate the request. By early next year, an online system for making such requests would be in place.
The Senate committee accepted no testimony from the public Monday and allowed votes to be cast by three members who were not present when the meeting finally began. The Assembly committee heard testimony for just 19 minutes, from seven people.