After hand wringing, two key New Jersey committees advanced a legalization bill to the full Legislature, setting the stage for an unprecedented vote next week — but no one knows if the votes are there to pass.
After more than nine hours of delays and discussion, the Assembly Appropriations committee voted 6-2 in favor of the bill (with two abstentions), and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 in support, with one person abstaining.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been beating the legalization drum since his campaign, and while lawmakers are slowly coming together on the issue, things were hardly unified Monday about the form legalization should take, and the deep divide among Democrats was particularly apparent. While lawmakers agreed to strengthen provisions to provide for expungement of past cannabis convictions, some said they would vote to allow the bill to go to the floor but wouldn’t necessarily support it later.
Sen. Bob Smith said the vote coming up “is going to be one of the toughest votes that I cast in my legislative career,” adding “I have some issues with it, quite frankly.” And, while not proven, Smith brought up concerns related to the potential link to cannabis use and schizophrenia.
Behind the scenes, lawmakers said, staff were finalizing amendments to the bill and pushing through separate legislation to strengthen the medical cannabis industry and provide a clearer pathway for expungement, a demand of civil rights groups working on the legislation.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who has worked on the bill for months with the governor and Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, pleaded his case before the vote. He said if the Legislature was so concerned about driving under the influence and long-term health issues, they would ban alcohol and cigarettes.
“People are using marijuana in New Jersey, it’s happening all the time,” he said. “We can’t stick our head in the sand forever.”
Earlier in the day, the Assembly hearing grew heated at times as Appropriations Chairman John Burzichelli sought a quick vote and passage once the bill’s text was available, which wasn’t until hours after the hearing had started.
“They’re not hard to understand and they’re not complicated,” Burzichelli snapped at one speaker who complained about not being able to read the amendments before the vote.
Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Annette Quijano said that one demand from civil rights advocacy groups was impossible: automatic expungement. She said the best the state could do for past cannabis crimes was “expedited” expungement, which includes waiving fees and providing other assistance to those seeking to get past crimes thrown out. Some court systems, she said, did not have electronic court files.
That didn’t sit well with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who testified in the Assembly hearing. “Nobody has explained to us why it’s impossible, why it’s difficult,” he said of automatic expungements. “It is highly hypocritical to tell people we are now going to legalize marijuana but you have to stay in jail.”
Also advancing out of committees on Monday: a medical cannabis expansion bill that, if passed by the full Legislature and signed by the governor, would increase the possession limit from 2 ounces to 2.5, and would allow patients to visit the doctor less often for certifications.