Complaints and Confusion as Recreational Marijuana Bill Goes to Full Senate

Passage is far from certain since even some lawmakers who voted measure out of joint committee indicate they’re not ready to say ‘yes’ in December legislative session

Marijuana smoker

Credit: NJTV News

After a long, heated debate on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, a joint committee hearing of both the Senate and Assembly released on Monday the proposed law that would make New Jersey the 10th state to do so. The bill could be considered by the entire state Legislature as soon as December 17.

But whether the bill will pass remains in doubt. At this point, Democrats do not have enough votes to see it through, at least in the Senate. It takes at least 21 votes to pass legislation in the upper house; currently, there are only 20 votes in favor, at best.

In addition to legalizing recreational marijuana, the joint bill would also set up a process to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of possessing or distributing small amounts of cannabis. Erasing those records could remove barriers affecting college, employment, and housing options.

Cutting off comment

An overpacked hearing listened to four hours of testimony pro and con before Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) took the unusual step of shutting down public comment with about 40 people still listed to speak. Many of those who testified took issue with various provisions of the bill, rather than the entire measure. But because the bill language was not available to most of the public before the hearing, it was unclear whether some objections had been addressed in amendments. What’s more, a number of legislators seemed confused about the contents of the measure. Nevertheless, committee members forwarded the bill (S-2703/A-11) to the entire Legislature without changes.NJ Spotlight published an overview of the bill yesterday.

Liz Acevedo, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), said that the speaker and Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) are in talks with the Murphy administration. “The Speaker is confident the bill will pass when it is posted for a vote in the full Assembly,” she said.

The bills might never have made it out of the committees if Democratic leadership hadn’t substituted members who solidly supported the measures on each panel. In both houses, three lawmakers sat in on the hearing and voted in place of other members. And even some of those who voted to release the bills — including Sarlo and Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) — said they may not vote in favor of final passage.

Getting beyond ‘no’

In the Senate, replacing budget committee members Nilsa Cruz-Perez of Camden County, Linda Greenstein of Mercer, and Brian Stack of Hudson left their support in doubt. Five others are “no” votes at the moment: Nia Gill, Ronald Rice, and Richard Codey, all of Essex, Nicholas Sacco of Hudson and Shirley Turner of Mercer. Codey and Rice are considered definite “no” votes, but it is believed Gov. Phil Murphy might be able to sway other Democrats to support the bill.

“We are going to work on them, but we are also going to work on some Republicans,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the key sponsor of the bill, along with Sweeney. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican based in Monmouth County, abstained but said he could be swayed to support the bill if it is amended to address some of his concerns.

Sweeney said he won’t post the bill for a floor vote until there is enough support for it.

Murphy vs. Sweeney (again)

There appear to be at least two sticking points between Murphy and Sweeney. The governor, who ran on a platform calling for legalization, originally wanted to impose a 25 percent tax on marijuana to bring $300 million into the state’s coffers, but with the two top Democrats arguing over the percent, and half the year gone, it’s not likely the state will see that much money. And Sweeney wants only a 12 percent tax. Another issue, according to the Senate president, is that the bill calls for a paid five-member board to oversee and regulate the cannabis industry, rather than a volunteer, advisory board.

“When we first allowed legalized gaming in the state, we created a part-time commission that was wrought with corruption,” said Sweeney, who also filled in on the committee and voted for the bill, of which he is a co-sponsor. “But on the creation of this industry, we want a full-time commission that has nothing else in terms of responsibilities.”

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