EDITOR’S NOTE: Entrepreneurs everywhere are eyeing the billion-dollar legal weed industry, an economic opportunity unrivaled in modern N.J. history. NJ Cannabis Insider features exclusive weekly content geared toward those interested in the marijuana industry. View a sample issue.
New Jersey’s governor supports legalizing weed. The state’s legislative leaders support legalizing weed. And 60 percent of the Garden State’s residents support legalizing weed.
But state leaders failed Monday to turn that support into action, calling off a historic vote in the state Legislature on a bill that would have legalized pot for adults 21 and older.
It came down to the absolute last minute, with Gov. Phil Murphy and his fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature continuing to scramble to gather votes for the measure — a signature part of Murphy’s platform. That was after the leaders worked hard behind the scenes for days trying to sing support.
But by early Monday afternoon, it was clear they would not be able to muster enough votes in the state Senate.
So Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, canceled the vote, further delaying the possibility of legal weed in the state.
With so much support, how does this happen? Here are several reasons why.
Not a lot of time to swing votes
Less than two weeks separated the release of the latest legalization bill and Monday’s planned vote. It was only a week ago that the bill advanced out of legislative committees and when Murphy really started burning up the phone lines.
As it turned out, not enough lawmakers — from either major political party — were sold on legalization, and there just wasn’t enough time to change their minds.
Some sources told NJ Advance Media on Monday said the Senate was just a single vote away from the 21 votes needed to pass the bill. But legislative sources said that count was too optimistic.
“We were really close today,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. “I think where some people had concerns dealt with the process. Some people felt it was rushed.”
Too many staunch ‘no’ votes from Democrats
From nearly the first day of Murphy’s push for legalization, several Democratic senators said they would be voting “no” on legal weed. Those include Richard Codey, D-Essex; Fred Madden, D-Gloucester; Ronald Rice, D-Essex; and Shirley Turner, D-Mercer. Others came out against legalization more recently, like Dawn Marie Addiego, D-Burlington, and James Beach, D-Camden.
For some critics, there’s a generational divide. Some consider marijuana a “gateway drug.” Some are concerned about public safety — after all, Madden and Rice are former cops. Some are worried about the negative impact on communities of color.
Without those votes, the path to the 21 votes needed in the Senate became treacherous.
Murphy and Sweeney either needed to swing some of those votes or get some Republicans on board, and they couldn’t get enough of either.
Both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature — the Senate and Assembly — need to pass the measure for Murphy to sign it into law.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, told NJ Advance Media the bill would have passed his chamber had they put it up for a vote.
But sources said the Assembly had no plans to do that if the Senate didn’t have enough support — especially because all 80 seats in the lower chamber are up for grabs in November’s election.
Last-minute changes to the bill threw off some lawmakers
During the legislative committee hearings last week, discussion on marijuana was delayed for hours as lawmakers worked behind the scenes to beef up the expungement language in a bill that would expunge the records of thousands of people with pot convictions in the state.
When debate picked up again, Republican lawmakers seemed shocked to find out that the bill would allow people who had convictions for possessing up to five pounds of marijuana to have their record cleared.
State Sen. Kip Bateman, R-Somerset, who had been seen as a potential “yes” vote, seemed particularly aggrieved by that expungement language and last week said he would not support legalization.
“The decision by legislative leaders to cancel today’s planned votes on marijuana legalization is reflective of the significant concerns that exist among both Republicans and Democrats with current proposals,” Bateman said in a statement.
“I truly believe there is bipartisan support for significant marijuana reforms, including the expansion of our medical marijuana program and decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” he added. “Unfortunately, we were presented an all or nothing proposition on some poorly structured bills, which doomed the potential for achieving significant marijuana reform from the start.”
A Democratic senator who was planning to vote “yes” on legalization told NJ Advance Media the expungement changes came too late in the process.
Leaders weren’t as into legalization as the governor
For Murphy, legal weed has always been one of his big-ticket items. Sweeney and Coughlin — New Jersey’s two most powerful state lawmakers — joined the governor in support. But they considered legalization to be Murphy’s priority first and foremost, according to multiple sources close to them.
Thus, neither the Senate president nor the Assembly speaker were willing to expend too much political capital to capture legislative support for legal weed, said one source close to the debate but who wasn’t able to speak publicly on the issue.
Sweeney on Monday deflected criticism that he could have leaned harder on some senators to vote “yes” — especially a group of South Jersey Democratic allies who were against the bill or on the fence.
“This vote is not like a regular vote,” Sweeney said. “It’s a very tough, difficult vote. When you’re doing big things, it takes time.”
Murphy’s troubles with the Legislature continue
There was also the question of whether Murphy, 14 months into his tenure, would whip up support in a Legislature with which he’s sometimes had a rocky relationship. Some insiders have criticized Murphy in his first year for not being able to navigate the tricky, often cutthroat politics of Trenton.
Sources also said Murphy, a tried-and-true progressive, wasn’t willing to become too “transactional” in this matter — in other words, trading something to get votes. He largely tried to sell the bill on its merits.
But just hours after the vote was scuttled, Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin all appeared at a news conference in Trenton together and stressed they are working together to make the bill become law.
“This was a true partnership among the three of us,” Coughlin said.
What happens now?
Based on what Murphy and Sweeney have said over the past couple of weeks, it could be many months before legalization returns to Trenton.
But hope remains that the Legislature could revisit legalization before the June 30 deadline for the next state budget to be passed. Some sources said a May vote in a possibility.
Murphy said Monday “sooner is better than later.”
“Certainly, I’m disappointed, but we are not defeated,” the governor said.
Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin said they will now evaluate what went wrong and see what changes need to be made to bring enough lawmakers to the fold.
“This wasn’t a defeat,” Sweeney said. “It’s a pause.”
Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips
Get the latest updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.