After more than a year of debate and numerous hearings, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced Wednesday that the state’s legal weed bill is dead. He said the question of whether the state should legalize marijuana for recreational use would be placed on the ballot in 2020.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the bill’s cosponsor and chief advocate, said last week that the proposal was only two votes short in the Senate and that it was expected to pass in the Assembly. But Sweeney, who had been courting lawmakers since March 25 when the vote on the bill was abruptly canceled, said the support was still not quite there nearly two months later.

Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester County, said at a news conference that “adult-use marijuana will be legalized in New Jersey, but it won’t happen now." He said he was disappointed, but “the votes just aren’t there.”

Marijuana advocates prefer to have the referendum next year, during the presidential elections, when turnout, including millennial voters, should be strong. Traditionally, turnout would be lower this November, when there are no national races and few statewide races on the ballot.

Scutari said he would recommend that the referendum appear in the form of a constitutional amendment so that it would be binding. “That would be the only way to get this done,” he said.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (left) and Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari talk in the Statehouse.
Mel Evans / AP File
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (left) and Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari talk in the Statehouse.

Ten other states and Washington, D.C., have legalized adult-use marijuana in recent years and all but one —Vermont — did it through referendum.

Until now, New Jersey lawmakers have said passing the nearly 200-page bill was “a better way” to legalize marijuana because they linked it with other bills that would expand the state’s medical-marijuana program and include social-justice provisions that would quickly expunge the records of those convicted of possessing marijuana, a crime for which minorities are arrested three times as often as whites.

One reason Sweeney decided to abandon the bill at this time is cannabis activists have been clamoring for lawmakers to forge ahead on the more popular medical-marijuana expansion bill and the social-justice proposal and the governor said he would set a deadline to get the package approved or move ahead administratively with a medical-marijuana expansion.

The three bills were strategically linked and until now Sweeney had said he would not separate them.

“It would have been best to move the adult-use and medical expansion bills at the same time, but it is wrong to hold the medical and expungements bills hostage,” Sweeney said Wednesday. "We want to move forward to help transform the state’s medical-marijuana program and to achieve the progressive reforms for social justice.”

A Facebook video recently posted by Mike Honig, whose 7-year-old son, Jake, had used marijuana in his final days, played a role. Honig said that the medical bill would open the door for more patients like Jake but that it was being “held hostage" by the bill package. Jake died of brain cancer last year and the medical-marijuana expansion bill is named after him.

In a tweet, Mike Honig called Sweeney’s announcement “huge!!!"

Sen. Ronald Rice of Essex County, the chair of the state Legislative Black Caucus and a vocal opponent of legalization, also applauded Sweeney’s announcement. “I support expungement and medical as long as it’s done right, but what people don’t want is to see people walking up and down the avenues and seeing marijuana cupcakes and candy bars for sale next to liquor stores,” he said.

Rice introduced a bill earlier this year to put the legalization question to the voters, but it was never released from committee for consideration by the full Senate. He also sponsored a bill last year that would decriminalize marijuana — that is, make possession a civil violation subject to a fine, similar to the law in Philadelphia. But that proposal also is still in committee and Rice said it would go a long way toward correcting the social-justice issues of disparate arrests for simple possession of marijuana.

Rice said he now would like both bills to be brought to the floor for a vote.

Gov. Phil Murphy was unavailable for comment Wednesday. But last week he said he would continue to support the Legislature in getting legalization passed.

Where Recreational Marijuana Has Been Legalized

Since 2012, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. New Jersey legislative leaders plan to put the issue to voters as a ballot referendum after a legalization bill failed to advance. Vermont remains the only state to have legalized recreational marijuana through legislation.

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures
JOHN DUCHNESKIE / Staff Artist

The bill package ran into difficulty over the last few weeks as opponents grew more vocal and supporters grew divided over how best to proceed.

A political rivalry between Murphy and Sweeney also played a role, and Murphy set a deadline of the end of May to get the package passed or he would move forward administratively to expand and improve the medical-marijuana program. Murphy announced his decision after speaking with Honig and then on Monday started rolling out plans to improve access to the program.

Sweeney said he had asked Murphy to hold off on making immediate improvements and expanding the medical program until he could muster the votes for legalization and said that it could take longer than the end of May. Sweeney said Murphy’s decision to move forward hurt the bill package’s chance of success.

Gov. Phil Murphy.
AP
Gov. Phil Murphy.

Murphy and Sweeney have clashed in recent days over the governor’s plan to pursue an investigation into the more than a billion dollars in tax incentives that were doled out to corporations that relocated to the Camden waterfront, in South Jersey, Sweeney’s turf. A comptroller’s report questioned whether the corporations’ agreement to hire Camden residents and invest in the city was honored after the corporations received the tax breaks.

Soon after Sweeney announced he would pull the bill, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin issued a statement saying he, too, was disappointed, but he agreed with Sweeney’s “decision to move ahead with a bill to fix the flaws in the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and make medical marijuana more accessible to patients who could benefit from it.”

Coughlin, a Middlesex County legislator, also said he supports plans to address the issue of expunging records. “Broader regulation around expungement will give thousands of New Jerseyans the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate making it easier to gain employment, buy a home or get a loan,” he said.

The six Assembly Democrats who sponsored a medical-marijuana expansion bill also announced they would move ahead with a medical expansion bill by July. “This bill will put patients and doctors back in charge of a patient’s medical care plan," they said. "We look forward to taking the next steps to ensure more New Jersey residents have access to this potentially life-changing treatment.”