Senate abandons effort on cannabis cleanup legislation



State Sen. Nick Scutari speaks to reporters. 


The state Senate is abandoning efforts to pass clean-up legislation that would resolve how New Jersey would penalize underage possession of cannabis, setting up a scenario in which Gov. Phil Murphy will be forced to either sign or veto legislation he's said would legalize the drug for children.

“We couldn’t get 21 votes on any bill other than the bills that are on his desk,” Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who's led cannabis legalization efforts in the Legislature, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Scutari chairs, had been scheduled to hold a vote on the latest clean-up bill at 3 p.m. Wednesday. That meeting was ultimately canceled.

The committee punted on the legislation on Tuesday in order to provide more runway for negotiations between the Murphy administration and Democratic lawmakers. But after a caucus meeting early Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent there wasn’t a path forward.

Why it matters: The stalled effort in the Senate leaves Murphy with few good options.

If he signs the cannabis legalization bill, NJ A21 (20R), and accompanying decriminalization measure, NJ A1897 (20R), currently on his desk, he’ll be agreeing to language his administration has repeatedly criticized for containing provisions that effectively legalize underage possession.

If Murphy conditionally vetoes the two bills, New Jersey’s cannabis legalization effort will be impossibly delayed, leaving a policy cornerstone of his 2017 campaign unfulfilled as he kicks off his reelection effort.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, the governor’s main intra-party rival, has promised to reject any conditional vetoes that would send the bills back to the Legislature with recommendations for concurrence.

If Murphy takes no action, both bills, which were sent to him on Dec. 17, will become law as soon as the Assembly holds its next quorum. That deadline is currently 9 a.m. Friday.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Scutari said he hasn't heard any indication that the governor, who's been public in his criticism of the legislation, might sign either bill.

"I hope that he does. There’s nothing wrong with the bills as they are. They were well thought out and worked on for years,” he said.

Background: New Jersey voters in November approved a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis for adults aged 21 and over. The new amendment, which took effect on Jan. 1, requires enabling legislation.

Setting the legal and regulatory framework for the industry has proven to be an impossible task for the state’s top elected Democrats, each of whom is pro-legalization.

Although Murphy’s office played an active role in negotiating key provisions of the cannabis bills that were approved by lawmakers in December, it wasn’t until after their passage that administration officials identified inconsistencies in how the legislation handles underage possession of the drug.

Under the legalization bill, those 21 and younger caught with less than 1 ounce of cannabis could be charged with a petty disorderly persons offense. But the decriminalization bill removed penalties for those under 21 caught possessing marijuana — a term that would only apply to illicit products.

“Nobody has ever, including yours truly, spoken about legalizing marijuana, recreational marijuana for kids,” Murphy said in January. “That's never been in the cards.”

Efforts to resolve those differences have been chaotic, with Black and Latino caucus leaders raising red flags over a proposal backed by Murphy and some Democratic lawmakers that would have subjected minors to non-criminal penalties like curbside warnings and “stationhouse adjustments.”

The latest clean-up effort, which was sponsored by Scutari and Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), would have created a three-tier warning system for minors caught with the drug, along with small monetary fines for those aged 18 to 20.

That bill went even further in pursuing new criminal justice reforms, including creating a 26-person task force to review body camera footage of police officers who respond to cannabis-related calls.

Scutari on Wednesday had also planned to introduce a stripped-down clean-up bill that would have made technical corrections to the legalization and decriminalization measures.

Ultimately, there weren’t enough votes for either piece of legislation.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-02-18 03:51:24 -0800