Why the Plan to Legalize Marijuana in New Jersey Suddenly Unraveled

By Nick Corasaniti and Jesse McKinley


March 27, 2019

An effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey collapsed on Monday after Democratic leaders failed to muster enough support among state lawmakers.


All the elements for swiftly legalizing marijuana in New Jersey seemed to be in place: A proposed bill was enthusiastically backed by Gov. Philip D. Murphy and had been endorsed by leaders of the Democratic-controlled State Legislature. Also, statewide polls showed support for the issue.

Then the plans unraveled.

Some lawmakers were unsure about how to tax marijuana sales. Others feared legalization would flood the state’s congested streets and highways with impaired drivers. Some would not be deterred from believing that marijuana was a dangerous menace to public health.

A disagreement existed among lawmakers about how far to go regarding the social justice component in the legalization bill: Fissures grew over whether it was necessary to expunge criminal records for marijuana-related offenses for those found with as much as five pounds of the drug.

“Five pounds is a lot of pot,” said Christopher Bateman, a Republican senator who had been considered a swing vote but had come out recently opposing legalization. “That’s not you and I smoking a little bit. That’s a dealer on the corner, selling and distributing.”

All of this turmoil put New Jersey’s legalization efforts in jeopardy, and despite more than a hundred calls, texts and personal entreaties from Mr. Murphy to legislators in a final frenzied week, the bill abruptly collapsed on Monday.

The failure in New Jersey revealed the difficulties for legalizing marijuana, especially through legislative efforts, rather than the ballot measures used in nine states where the drug has been legalized.

Lawmakers in New Jersey, along with those in New York and Connecticut, have tried to painstakingly craft legislation to avoid problems encountered by states like Colorado, which in 2014 became the first to sell legal marijuana and has since endured unflattering headlines.

A report released on Monday showed an increase in emergency room visits in Colorado as the drug has become more readily available.

For states like California and Massachusetts, legalizing marijuana has led to some negative results: underwhelming tax revenue; a host of public health and safety concerns, such as keeping the drug out of teenagers’ hands; and a burgeoning industry dominated by white corporate interests even as advocates in Hispanic and black communities say their neighborhoods have been most negatively affected by the drug.

In New York, legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have seemed increasingly pessimistic in recent weeks about a quick deal on legalization, and are making contingency plans: Mr. Cuomo, after hearing of legislative trepidation, had already begun seeking alternative sources of revenue to replace those that would have come with legalized marijuana. He has suggested that the state may not be able to pass a bill this year.

On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who is sponsoring New York’s legalization bill, said that lawmakers in Albany were still discussing the issue of community reinvestment, something she said was often lacking in other states where the drug has been legalized.

“In many ways, they didn’t get it exactly right, and it didn’t benefit the communities that have had the harshest impact,” said Ms. Peoples-Stokes, who serves as the chamber’s majority leader. “We want to change that in New York.”

Democratic leaders of suburban places like Nassau and Suffolk County — east of the city — have already announced they will opt out of any legal marijuana plan.

“This is a significant shift in public policy, so it comes as little surprise that lawmakers are taking a very deliberative approach,” said Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. “It is easy to grow impatient following decades of enduring a failed policy of marijuana prohibition, but huge strides are being taken in these states and others around the country.”

Given what other states have encountered, New Jersey and other states facing financial challenges are reconsidering the possible financial benefits of legalization. Tax revenues in California have fallen well short of projections, and a black market for marijuana continues to thrive, which some cannabis business experts attribute to high taxes.

Legislators in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are also working to answer demands that legalization benefit minority populations disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs by providing job training and ensuring they get licenses to sell or grow marijuana.

In New Jersey, the legalization bill caps the number of licenses to prevent flooding the market, establishes a regulatory commission that could respond to market fluctuations and applies a sales tax based on weight rather than as a percentage to ensure a steady revenue stream.

New Jersey also pursued one of the country’s most liberal expungement programs by offering a clean slate for those who had been convicted of possessing up to five pounds of marijuana, an amount higher than any other state. And the bill said that some licenses would be reserved for communities with high rates of marijuana arrests and unemployment in an attempt to diversify the industry.

The struggles in New Jersey and the slowdown of negotiations in New York have given opponents hope of forestalling or stopping future legalization efforts.

“There’s a lot of backlash about the idea that we have to sell pot gummy bears to achieve social justice,” said Kevin A. Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit organization that opposes legalization. He added that he’s seen an increase in opposition among some black and Latino lawmakers. “They’re seeing it’s safe to be a Democrat and anti-legalization.”

Though the political stars seemed aligned in New Jersey, the reality in the State House was far more complex.

Despite being hailed by advocates around the country as perhaps the most progressive legalization plan in the nation, some of the loudest opposition came from powerful African-American lawmakers.

Shirley Turner, a black Democratic state senator, visited Colorado to see how legalization worked and returned worried about whether teenagers would be tempted to try the drug if it were legal.

And Nia Gill, another black Democratic senator and a former speaker of the assembly, cited a Colorado study that found that even after legalization, marijuana arrest rates for black residents were nearly double that of white residents. (Even in states where marijuana is legal, certain limits apply to how much someone can possess and what age they can use it.)

“The disparity is never alleviated because the disparity has to do with policing,” she said. “The disparity does not have to do with legalization of marijuana.”

Mr. Murphy reached out repeatedly to black lawmakers to assuage their concerns. He also courted the support of civil rights leaders, like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Richard T. Smith, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., as well as African-American celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg.

Days before the scheduled vote, Mr. Murphy held a news conference while being surrounded by religious leaders and civil rights activists.

But it was not enough to win over the most senior African-American Democrats who were holding out.

“I think we need to look before we leap,” said Ms. Turner.

A coalition of veteran white lawmakers, including former law enforcement officials, remained concerned about thwarting driving under the influence of marijuana.

In Colorado, officials are still unprepared to deal with this challenge and have yet to develop authoritative field sobriety tests and reliable lab testing, according to a report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

“People are concerned about the inability to measure whether someone who is driving is impaired because of marijuana,” said Richard Codey, a Democratic state senator and former governor.

The New Jersey bill would set up a task force focused on policing marijuana and driving and would offer to reimburse communities that hire law enforcement officers trained to recognize drivers impaired by drugs.

But it was not enough to sway some lawmakers.

“We have a million more registered cars on the road than Colorado,” Mr. Bateman said.

In the end, the effort in New Jersey was also sunk by more parochial political reasons. Despite having a stranglehold on state government, Mr. Murphy and Stephen M. Sweeney, the Democratic senate president, have had a frosty relationship and never truly mounted a unified effort to do the arm twisting to secure the necessary votes until the final few days.

Mr. Murphy, however, would not admit defeat, saying the decision to call off the vote was merely a setback. Still, no one has said when the bill might be resurrected or whether a new strategy will be deployed.

“Eventually barriers do fall,” Mr. Murphy told reporters, “to those who are committed to breaking them down.”

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