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Cannabis Legalization in New Jersey Goes Back to Drawing Board

The effort to to legalize marijuana in New Jersey ground to a halt March 25 when Senate President Stephen Sweeney decided there wasn’t enough votes to pass Senate Bill 2703.

«It’s really more of a pause than a defeat,» says William Caruso, a lawyer at Archer & Greiner PC and a member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, who helped craft the state’s medical program. «It was the first time ever a bill on adult-use cannabis came within one or two votes in the Senate of becoming a law. The goal now is to figure out where they’re short. There’s a break now for the Legislature to work on the budget and legalization will be back on the agenda in May and June.»

The measure had support in the Assembly, but would have fallen a few votes short in the Senate.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY: «History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts and setbacks. But eventually, barriers do fall.»

The effort made history as the first time adult-use legislation nearly reached the floor of the State House, but legalization is taking much longer than the 100 days that Gov. Phil Murphy targeted when he took office in late 2017.

One key opponent, Senator Ron Rice, a Democrat from Essex, has argued that legalization would encourage more marijuana use in African-American neighborhoods and that lawmakers should first pass a law expunging records of minorities convicted on drug charges. He’s famously referred to legal pot shops as «marijuana bodegas disguised as dispensaries

«The goal has been to pass racial and social justice reform, which includes expungement and diversity inclusion language to help create a cannabis market that looks like New Jersey, and to deal with a broken medical market and to legalize marijuana and stop arrests,» Caruso adds. «Those are still tied together and there’s no discussion on breaking them apart.»

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Caruso said the law includes provisions to ensure that people with marijuana convictions applying for cannabis businesses won’t be shut out of the market and some money for training and reinvestment in communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association, believes it’s taking time to convince lawmakers that grew up with the stigma around marijuana. «Part of it is generational,» he tells Freedom Leaf. «People have been told for years that cannabis is bad and now people are telling them it’s fine and to trust us. They have hard time with that.»

Opponents have been muddying the issue with inaccurate or outdated numbers, Rudder says. Teen use of cannabis has actually dropped in states with legal pot and DUI arrests and opioid abuse have also declined.

«We do think we’ll get this done,» Rudder predicts. «Some of the lawmakers thought the process was rushed. There are enough votes on the fence and with the right information and if we address lawmaker’s concerns, we’ll get it passed.»

RELATED: New Jersey’s Path to Legalization

A recent change in the bill regarding expungement of records for past cannabis offenses took lawmakers by surprise. Earlier versions set the expungement limit at convictions for 50 grams or less, but that was raised to five pounds. «When people sitting on the fence saw that change, they jumped right off the bill,» he notes.

While delivery services and consumption lounges would’ve been allowed in the bill, home grow would not.

At the press conference in the governor’s office after the vote was scrapped, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin used a football analogy to explain what had just happened inside the the Statehouse in Trenton: “We didn’t get a touchdown, but we moved the ball to the one-yard line.»

Gov. Murphy, who’s been unable to sway enough lawmakers even after bringing in well-known figures to support the measure, such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Whoopi Goldberg, took the delay philosophically: “History is rarely made at the first attempt. History is often a bumpy road of fits and starts and setbacks. But eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down. Certainly, I’m disappointed, but we are not defeated.”