Deals are on the table and arms are being twisted, but New Jersey lawmakers say the vote to legalize recreational marijuana for adults is still way too close to call.
Never mind that the vote is set for Monday in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly after more than a year of hearings and debate.
“It should pass, but I don’t know if it will,” State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the chief architect of the bill, said Friday, as a hint of exasperation crept into his voice. “There’s a bunch of people we think we can get to yes, but they haven’t said it yet.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, said Thursday that legislative leaders are short of the votes needed, and sources say the Senate needs about five more votes to pass the measure. The governor has promised to sign the bill if it passes and is working to win support. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a cosponsor of the bill, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin also said they are lobbying lawmakers to get them on board.
When asked to describe the mood in the Statehouse as the bill’s fate is being decided, one legislative aide said, “It’s changing by the hour. It’s that perilously close.”
Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat, declined to comment Friday. Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for the Assembly Democratic Majority, said “We’re close but we’re confident.”
If the bill is approved and becomes law, New Jersey would become the 11th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize recreational marijuana. The state approved medical marijuana in 2010.
Sen. Ron Rice, a Newark Democrat and the chair of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, said he adamantly opposes the measure and no one has reached out to him in recent days to try to change his mind. But he said others who share his position on legalization have described “heavy arm-twisting” by supporters of the bill.
“Over the last few days they’ve been calling these legislators, and some are feeling intimidated,” he said. “Some are getting three or four calls. … They may threaten your chairmanship or threaten to hold your bills up.”
NJ Advance Media reported Thursday night that if there are not enough supporters to pass the bill, Sweeney has said he will cancel the vote Monday and may postpone it until after the November election. The report said the Assembly likely has the needed votes, but the Senate is short five votes. Citing unnamed sources close to lawmakers, the report said many of the Democratic senators who are “hard ‘no’ votes” and strongly oppose legalization are from South Jersey.
They are Bob Andrzejczak (D., Cape May); James Beach (D., Camden); Richard Codey (D., Essex); Fred Madden (D., Gloucester), and Rice (D., Essex), NJ Advance reported. It said there were seven senators who were on the fence, including Camden Democrat Nilsa Cruz-Perez.
Efforts to reach those lawmakers were unsuccessful Friday, except for Rice.
Rice said he expected South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III to exert political influence on those senators. “When he calls for their vote, they fall in line,” Rice said. “I think they probably have the votes but they’re just not telling anyone.”
Other political observers noted that Norcross and Murphy are political rivals and said that in an effort to deprive the governor of a legislative victory, Norcross may decide not to push for the bill.
Norcross was out of state Friday and unavailable for comment, said his spokesman, Dan Fee.
NJ Advance Media said no Republican senators have publicly voiced support for the measure, but that three could be persuaded to break ranks: Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R., Somerset); Declan O’Scanlon (R., Monmouth); and Robert Singer (R., Ocean).
Bateman and O’Scanlon went on a trip to Colorado a few years ago with Scutari, the bill sponsor, who organized tours of marijuana dispensaries and a cultivation center to educate lawmakers on how legalization was working in that state, the first in the nation to approve legalization. After they returned, the two Republicans said they were surprised to see that legalization had caused few problems for Colorado.
Scutari said the lawmakers who oppose his bill cling to the fear that legalization could encourage young people to try marijuana and view it as a gateway drug that could lead to harder drugs.
“If members would get their heads out of the sand, they would vote for it," he said. "Children are already using marijuana, and this bill attempts to get them away from drug dealers. The gateway is the dealers. We’re not promoting the use of marijuana, we just want it regulated.”
Rice, as a vocal opponent, said he worries about what legalization will do to urban communities.
“Heroin is on the rise, so why pass a bill that will start people on drugs?” he asked. “If marijuana is already out there and is wrong, why pass a law that will encourage people to do something they shouldn’t do?”