New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is still counting on state legislators to legalize recreational cannabis use in the Garden State this year, even though lawmakers have so far been reticent to support his legalization efforts. This week, Murphy released his first budget proposal, which includes $60 million in cannabis sales tax revenue. In order to accomplish this feat, the Murphy administration expects that the Legislature will pass a bill to legalize weed by January 1st, 2019.
This new timeframe is a step back from Murphy's previous promise to legalize pot within his first 100 days in office. Although many state legislators are on board with the new governor's plans, there are also many lawmakers who want to take a more conservative approach to cannabis reform, as well as a number of Republicans who still want to keep the state's current marijuana prohibition laws in full effect.
As an alternative to full legalization, a bipartisan group of legislators has proposed a compromise bill that would decriminalize cannabis possession. This bill, sponsored by Democratic State Senator Ronald Rice and Republican State Senator Robert Singer, would reduce the penalty for possession of under 10 grams of weed to a $100 fine. Under current law, first-time offenders can face up to six months in jail, a $500 fine, or both.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney is opposed to this compromise legislation, however, and may refuse to allow the bill to be heard. Sweeney told NJ Advance Media that he doesn't "have an interest" in the decriminalization bill. "I don't see it moving forward at this time. You're basically legalizing something that's not legal now. If you're gonna do it, do it right. Regulate it and manage it properly."
Sweeney has thrown his support to a bill proposed by Senator Nicholas Scutari, which would legalize adult use and create a licensed retail cannabis market in the state. During his budget speech on Tuesday, Murphy urged lawmakers to support this legalization bill instead of the decriminalization bill.
"I greatly respect those in this chamber who have proposed decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana," Murphy said, according to Lehigh Valley Live. "But decriminalization alone will not put the corner dealer out of business, it will not help us protect our kids, and it will not end the racial disparities we see."
The bill will need to pass both chambers of the state Legislature before Murphy can sign it into law. But even if it fails, the Garden State may have another shot at legal weed. Some politicians are floating the idea of a public referendum in which the state's residents would vote on whether or not to legalize cannabis.
"If they're so assured this is a positive thing for the state of New Jersey, if they're so assured that people want to do it, let's put it on the ballot," Singer said to NJ Advance Media. The state Senator added that cannabis proponents "won't do that, though," because "they're afraid of it."
Despite Singer's pessimism, a referendum on legal weed in New Jersey may well pass, as a recent poll has reported that 59% of voters in the state are in favor of legalization. Senator Sweeney is still in favor of enacting legalization via legislation however, because it would make it easier for lawmakers to revise the law if necessary.
"The only problem with a referendum is: If you make mistakes and you need to make changes, the only way you can make changes is through a referendum," Sweeney said to NJ Advance Media. "It makes it too rigid."