New Jersey’s cannabis legalization vote falls apart at the eleventh hour

On March 25, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and other leaders in the legislature announced suddenly that they would not hold a vote on the state’s much-anticipated bill to legalize adult-use marijuana.

The failed vote was a setback for Murphy, who made legalization a core pledge during his campaign for the governorship. Despite having Democratic control in both the State Senate and Assembly, continued party infighting led to the defeat of the nearly year-long effort. Now, many in the state are left wondering if the movement is left for dead.

Murphy, however, took a more positive approach.

“Certainly I’m disappointed, but we are not defeated,” he told reporters. “Justice may be delayed, but justice will not be denied.”

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The choice to scuttle the vote came after a failed weekend push by the governor to rally the 40-member state senate. Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney said that he “might have underestimated the challenge in getting this passed,” but like Murphy, was hopeful about the future of the bill. He reassured voters that he would not abandon the legalization campaign.

According to some experts familiar with the situation in New Jersey, state Democrats may have relied a bit too much on hope in trying to pass Monday’s vote.

“Well [legislators] didn’t necessarily know — they were hopeful, I think given all the public support and all the momentum,” said Gene Markin, a partner with law firm Stark & Stark which is headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey.

Markin, who spoke exclusively with PotNetwork about the fallout from Monday’s failed vote counsels numerous stakeholders in the cannabis industry on legal matters facing businesses, from cultivators to dispensaries to infused-product manufacturers and more. He is a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association Cannabis Law Committee, the National Cannabis Bar Association, and other related organizations.

“With all the other states around us starting that discussion they thought there would be an easier road, let’s just say, to get there,” Markin continued. “But they were met with some resistance and some opposition. Some they expected and some they didn’t. There just wasn’t enough time to appease the opponents, so they had to call the vote off.”

Thus far, the governor has not released a statement as to when legislative leaders might revive the legalization effort. Supporters of the bill stated that they wouldn’t let the current stalled status stop them from pursuing political efforts to legalize cannabis in New Jersey.

Executive Director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Amol Sinha said in a statement that his organization is more devoted than ever to pursuing the end of prohibition.

“With each day without legalization, we grow more committed to ending prohibition. We will get it done,” Sinha said. “As legalization comes closer within reach, every stride forward in the Legislature only demonstrates the urgency of ending the harms of prohibition now. We will stand even stronger, knowing that the lives of 30,000 people arrested each year for marijuana possession hang in the balance.”

An issue of social justice

The Garden State’s cannabis legalization bill would have, in addition to legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, expunged cannabis-related crimes from hundreds of thousands of records for people convicted of minor drug offenses.

The bill also aimed to diversify the marijuana industry by ensuring that members of minority groups, as well as female cannabis entrepreneurs, would have access to cannabis retail and cultivation licenses.

“We have the widest white-nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated in America, and far and away the biggest contributor is low-end drug offenses,” Murphy said at a recent news conference.

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In a statement released prior to the vote being canceled, Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance stated that both legalization bills that were on the table, Senate Bill 2703 and Assembly Bill 4497, would rectify the damage done by the criminalization of cannabis.

“Currently, New Jersey arrests more than 32,000 people a year just for marijuana possession. These arrests derail people’s lives and imperil their futures… These people are our friends, neighbors, and families. Senate Bill 2703/Assembly Bill 4497 would allow these individuals to expunge their records and rebuild their lives,” Scotti said in her statement.

The legalization efforts undertaken in New Jersey attempted to address the criminality of cannabis more than many other states in terms of erasing past criminal records. Specifically, anyone convicted of possessing up to five pounds of marijuana would have been eligible to have their convictions removed from their records.

According to Markin, however, expungement was a divisive issue among legislators.

“Expungement was an issue,” Markin told PotNetwork, explaining how it created a divide among legislators. For some in the state capital, the notion of expungement was long overdue, something they felt should be automatic with any legalization bill. Others took a more hard-line stance.

Whatever side they came down on, Markin noted that for senators and assemblymembers the issue of expungement had no easy answers.

“The reality is expungement has to be done a certain way,” said Markin.

 “There has to be paperwork; there has to be precision, there has to be accuracy. You can’t just automatically expunge people’s records, because what if you got caught stealing a car and you had possession of marijuana? There have to be different factors that go into it.”

Stark & Stark Partner Gene Markin
Gene Markin, a partner with law firm Stark & Stark which is headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey

The opposition and selective bias

While the legalization of marijuana has the approval of a majority of voters in New Jersey, legislators continue to face an uphill battle. In fact, some lawmakers believe that pot legalization will do more harm than good, especially in urban communities.

State Sen. Ronald L. Rice is one of the main opponents of the cannabis movement, arguing that people haven’t received a proper education on what legalizing marijuana could mean for communities.

“People don’t realize, particularly people in urban communities, how it will affect their lives. In urban communities, neighborhoods will struggle against the spread of ‘marijuana bodegas’ disguised as dispensaries,” Rice told The New York Times.

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Additionally, dozens of communities had already voted to ban retail marijuana spaces in their town. Some municipalities argued that a 3 percent local tax added to cannabis sales would be too low to have a positive impact on their town.

“I’m surprised at some of the comments that I’ve seen because I know New Jersey has made a real conscious effort to promote the social justice issue as far as offering licenses to minorities [and] preserving a fairly decent amount of opportunities for minorities and disadvantaged folks,” Markin said, discussing some of the tactics of the opposition.

And while he stated that New Jersey’s push towards social justice helped sway a few votes, ultimately it was the bias of some legislators against cannabis that helped to kill the bill.

“These folks who say ‘oh this is going to be a blight on communities’ and ‘you’re going to have these marijuana bodegas’ and ‘everyone’s going to stop working and stop going to school and just smoke pot,’” it’s sort of just a bias towards marijuana,” stated Markin. “People are smoking it now, so it’s not like you’re really changing the availability of the drug.”

“You’re just regulating it and making it more safe for those that are going to be responsible about it,” he continued.

For Markin, it’s an issue of some legislators having an old school, old time kind of mentality. He noted that many of the people voting on the issue grew up in a time where cannabis was stigmatized as a ‘gateway drug,’ and to them, it still carries those negative connotations. Other legislators in New Jersey are retired police officers, Markin noted, and they have certain negative perceptions of the drug — to them it will always be linked with crime.

“It’s a selective kind of bias because they just ignore all the benefits of it,” he said.

The fight is far from over for New Jersey

The ACLU-NJ argued in their statement that the tabling of the legalization discussion is but a bump in the road.

“The fact that the margins were a hair too thin for the vote to go forward is a disappointment, but that should not be the takeaway for today. We’re closer than ever before to passing the most socially and racially conscious legalization plan in the country, and today was one step toward that ultimate goal.

“Legalization is an urgent civil rights issue of our era, and it’s up to advocates in the coming weeks and month [sic] to make that urgency clear,” Sinha stated.

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“Someone described it as we didn’t get a touchdown, but we got to the one-yard line,” Markin told PotNetwork — an interesting description considering the race New Jersey is in against its northeastern neighbor New York to be the first in the region to legalize cannabis. The winner could attract large swaths of the business sector and millions of dollars to their respective local economies.

Still, for his money, Markin sees New Jersey eventually scoring that winning touchdown.

“They’ll try to have a vote in May, if not we’re looking at probably November,” said Markin. “But I don’t think anyone is giving up; it’s just reenergizing the effort and trying to placate the concerns of the opponents in such a way that turns them around.”

Besides, for consumers in the northeast, it doesn’t matter in what state they live.

“We got bridges, right,” Markin noted of the race between the northeastern states. “New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. Everyone understands whoever goes legal first we’re going to get a lot of interested visitors.”

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