Public input rejected in rush to make weed legal (Analysis)
When talking about the legalization of marijuana, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has said it would be a “seismic shift in public policy and the creation of a new industry" and that we need to "get it right."
However, on the way to a potentially historic vote as early as next Monday, the path to legal weed has been shrouded in secrecy and is being rushed through the legislature with little public input, debate or transparency.
For a bill to become law in New Jersey, it is typically an 11-step process that minimally takes 45 days, but can take months or years to accomplish. It often includes multiple legislative hearings where the bill is debated and testimony from the public is taken. In the case of legalizing recreational marijuana, that process is being rushed, bypassed and compressed into less than two weeks.
On Monday, a Senate committee room was packed with people who wanted their voices heard on this issue. After hours of delay while Democrats met in a back room, they were turned away. The committee refused to take testimony. It wasn’t much more open in the Assembly, where less than half an hour of public input was accepted.
Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney swapped out regular committee members to make certain the bills would advance. They also agreed to allow some committee members who were not physically present to cast a vote. In the Senate, the committee hearing was delayed for hours while changes to the bills were made behind closed doors. Some members of the public waited six hours to testify, only to be told they would not get the chance. The three legalization and decriminalization bills are hundreds of pages long, but lawmakers were asked to take committee votes with little time to even read the bills.
Senator Kip Bateman, R-Somerset, derided the proceedings during the public portion of the hearing.
“It’s no way to run a government,” Bateman said, and called the process “outrageous."
"If we are going to do it, let’s do it right," he said.
Sweeney talked with me about the urgency of getting this done when he appeared on New Jersey 101.5 to take listener calls earlier this month. He said if the bill does not get done by next Monday, it would have to be put off until the fall. Sweeney also warned debating legalization during the budget process would lead to unhealthy horse trading for votes.
Despite Sweeney’s public comments, that is exactly what is happening.
The governor and legislative leaders have just a few days to gather enough votes before a final vote is taken on March 25. Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters Monday his talks with lawmakers had been good, “but we’re not there yet.” Sweeney said he was “close” to having the 21 votes needed to pass the bill. Coughlin’s office expressed confidence it would have the votes as well.
However, what gets promised in exchange for a ‘yes” vote may never be known. These conversations are all held in private, with no public input. Despite Coughlin’s admonition to be cautious and “get it right,” he and Sweeney appear determined to rush this legislation with little public input or debate.
More from New Jersey 101.5: