TRENTON — Bills to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in New Jersey were pulled from consideration at the last minute Monday, as the full Senate and Assembly were due to vote.
Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said legalization had a chance to pass in the Assembly, but not in the Senate.
“They are going to take it back and look at it again,” said Mazzeo, who said he is still “on the fence” about legalizing recreational cannabis but supports expansion of medicinal marijuana and expungements for those convicted of low-level marijuana crimes.
“This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and move forward,” said Democrat and Senate President Steve Sweeney in a written statement. He said he remains committed to passing the legislation.
“The Trenton Democrats pulling this bill is like keeping the Titanic in dry dock,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, referring to the lack of enough votes on either side of the aisle.
“Until they answer why every New Jersey medical association, the New Jersey Chiefs of Police Association, the American Cancer Society, and addiction prevention counseling services all testified the legalization of marijuana will harm the health and safety of our families and children, this bill is destined to sink,” Brown said.
Brown said he could support a bill to both decriminalize cannabis and expunge the records of people with certain marijuana convictions, but he is not sure if the Democrats are ready to do that separately from legalization.
“What may result is they punt and put it up for referendum,” said Brown. “That’s why it’s important for editorial boards and reporters to do honest reporting. Look at what happened in Colorado.”
Brown said an educated public will be vital for making a good decision on legalization, via referendum.
Mazzeo said a referendum is a possibility, but he thinks it’s more likely legalization will come up for a vote at a later date, perhaps in May.
He was proud to be part of the process Monday, he said.
“We saw that democracy is actually working,” Mazzeo said. “When I walked through the State House today, there were a lot of people lined up with pros and cons. It was democracy in action.”
Mazzeo and Brown had said Sunday that the fate of the bills was still uncertain, as there didn’t seem to be enough votes to get them passed in their current form.
Last Thursday Gov. Phil Murphy, who made legalizing recreational marijuana a centerpiece of his campaign, said it was “now or never” for the bills. But now Democrats are singing a different tune.
Advocates have stressed the need to legalize a widely used substance and stop penalizing people for buying, using and selling it. They characterized it as a civil rights issue, since members of minority groups are much more likely to be arrested and convicted of marijuana crimes, while usage rates are similar in the white community.
The package of bills around legalization would also have included a program to expunge the records of people convicted of lower-level marijuana charges.
But opponents have said the high cost of cannabis under the bill, which would be taxed at $42 per ounce plus municipal taxes, would not eliminate the black market, and poorer people would still be likely to buy cannabis on the black market where it would be cheaper. That would then expose them to negative interaction with law enforcement, opponents said.
Medical groups and those working in the addiction community warned it would create another public health problem and unleash expanded use of another mind-altering substance while the state is in the midst of an opioid crisis.