Marijuana legalization in NJ on hold until 2020 voter referendum
TRENTON — Marijuana will not be legalized for use by adults in New Jersey any time soon.
Lawmakers on Wednesday announced that voters will get to decide in a referendum during the 2020 election.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said related bills that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program and provide for expungement of marijuana possession convictions will move ahead by the end of next month. Some changes will be made to the existing bills.
“We are not going to move forward with adult-use marijuana at this time,” Sweeney said at a Statehouse news conference. “It’s something I believe strongly in, but the votes aren’t there. And we can’t hold back progress.”
“Obviously I’m very disappointed,” he said. “But people have very strong beliefs and feelings.”
The Legislature had intended to pass marijuana legalization in March but fell short of the necessary support in the Senate. Sweeney said he has since lost votes, after Gov. Phil Murphy said that he would move to expand the medical marijuana program if legalization didn’t pass by the end of May.
New Jersey CannaBusiness Association president Scott Rudder said the industry will focus on the expansion of the medical program, which currently has six dispensaries open and another six in the pipeline.
“While clearly disappointed that adult-use legalization has been put on the backburner, we are thankful that medical cannabis reform is moving forward and patients will finally have greater access and be able to participate in a more affordable program,” Rudder said.
The medical marijuana bill that is expected to be approved next month would allow more medical conditions to qualify for marijuana prescriptions, increase the number of dispensaries, expand the list of professionals that can authorize the drug’s use, increase access to caregivers and the amount of cannabis that can be obtained and phase out the tax applied to sales.
The bill also sets up the regulatory oversight structure that is envisioned by the legalization bill, transferring its management from the Department of Health to a more independent commission.
The expungement bill would change the process for erasing criminal records and expand the categories of people who are eligible. It would allow for the expungement of third-degree and fourth-degree convictions related to controlled dangerous substances.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said he is disappointed that the adult-use marijuana bill will not pass and agreed with Sweeney about acting on the medical marijuana and expungement bills.
“I am currently reviewing the legislative measures and plan to move ahead in the General Assembly," Coughlin said.
Sweeney isn’t interested in a 2019 voter referendum because turnout is expected to be small, with Assembly elections topping the ballot. If it were to fail, it couldn’t return to the ballot for two years.
Sweeney said the 2020 election will have the highest turnout because of the presidential race and that he expects the ballot question to be approved.
“If you believe any of the polls, I think we’ll be successful,” Sweeney said.
Kevin Sabet, president of NJ RAMP, an acronym for Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, called Sweeney's announcement "a victory for every person and every community that would have been victimized by this predatory industry."
"We will continue to rally our coalition and ensure elected officials don't put profits ahead of people and public health," Sabet said.