Murphy, lawmakers have legal weed plan — but do they have the votes?
After months of discussions and negotiations, Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders have finally reached a deal on legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.
It all sounds great for supporters but there’s a problem.
Democratic leaders don't have enough votes to pass the legislation and there is great uncertainty about whether those in favor of legal weed will be able to get the support they need to pass the measure by the end of the month, when a tentative vote has been scheduled.
“The governor is going to have to play a big part in this but we’re all in agreement now, which is a very positive thing,” said state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
He said that up until now it was not possible to speak to lawmakers about the issue “because their first reaction was 'show me the bill.' We now finally have a bill we can show.”
Sweeney said there’s a big social-justice piece involved with passing the marijuana legislation and an economic benefit as well, but based on what’s happened in other states that have legal weed, it could help in Jersey’s fight against the opioid abuse epidemic.
“In Colorado, opioid abuse actually went down. If we can get someone to choose something other than (opioids), you know, it’s desirable.”
When asked if he’s confident the bill to legalize pot will be passed, Sweeney said: “I’m not sure where we’re at ... I’m confident I’m going to work hard, the governor is going to work hard, the Assembly speaker is going to work hard.”
Sweeney also said if a deal to make marijuana legal can’t be passed soon, it will probably have to be shelved.
“We can’t do it in the budget process. It would be really difficult and that’s when things get dangerous and bad decisions are made," he said.
“We want to try to get this done for the right reasons, not for crafting of a budget or horse-trading.”
The proposed measure, which would allow adults to buy a small amount of pot for their own personal use, would provide tax benefits for the state and towns where the weed was grown and sold, and it includes a provision to allow those previously convicted on misdemeanor marijuana charges to have their criminal records wiped clean.
The bill would also ensure “broad based participation in the industry for minority and women-owned business operations.
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, is not in favor of the marijuana bill.
“I don’t believe the state should endorse another drug,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of other ways to raise revenues other than create a new drug market.”
Bramnick said he doesn’t want to see anybody go to jail for small amounts of marijuana or have their opportunities in the business world to be ruined, “but I certainly don’t want to put our stamp of approval on a new drug, so I’ve been part of that discussion and I think there are going to be a limited number of votes in the Republican caucus (in favor of it)”
He stressed wheeling and dealing will not change his mind.
“It’s not a question of quid pro quo, it’s a question of whether or not New Jersey as a society would benefit from another drug.”
State Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union is one of the sponsors of the marijuana bill. He said the plan is to educate lawmakers about the finer points of the legislation.
“I think you can only come to one logical conclusion: We should legalize this substance that’s already just out there in our communities right now," he said.
He said making recreational marijuana legal would ensure the public would be getting a safe product, while at the same time help to get rid of the black market for pot, do away with unnecessary arrests and court appearances and help put people to work in a new industry.
When asked if there will be deals made to convince lawmakers to support the measure, he said: “We’re going to do what’s necessary to get the bill voted on and passed.”
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, hasn’t made up his mind about the proposed bill.
He said if we’re going to legalize marijuana and generate tax dollars, “we need to communicate to the public that it’s going to go towards the things they really care about: drug treatment, property tax relief and updating the 911 system.”
He said he’s also concerned about how the tax structure will work.
“The idea of taxing per ounce is interesting, but what are we doing to safeguard a race toward higher and higher potency?" he said. "If we’re going to do it we have to get it right.”