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Those seeking legal weed in New Jersey will have to wait as key vote delayed

Legalized pot in New Jersey was put on hold Monday. The legislature fell short of the 21 votes needed in the state Senate for approval.

New Jersey could become the 11th state to approve marijuana for recreational use. But supporters are still scrambling to convince enough legislators to pass the bill. (AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)
New Jersey could become the 11th state to approve marijuana for recreational use. But supporters are still scrambling to convince enough legislators to pass the bill. (AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)Read moreMarina Riker / AP

TRENTON — A vote to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey was never a done deal. And going into Monday’s session at the Statehouse, supporters knew they were teetering on the brink of a very narrow defeat.

Despite popular support among state residents, it was general knowledge that there just weren’t enough legislative votes to push the cannabis bill — one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature proposals — over the goal line.

So it came as little surprise when Senate President Stephen Sweeney abruptly canceled a vote shortly after noon. The Assembly had enough votes to approve the measure but legislative leaders fell short in the Senate.

Sweeney declined to call the effort a failure.

“Anyone who thinks this is dead is wrong,” said the Gloucester County Democrat, who bluntly admitted to being “disappointed” in the result. “I might have underestimated the challenge in getting this passed.”

The governor said he was confident that the bill could be reworked “after a post-op,” or analysis, and approved by both houses. But he said it was too early to say when that might happen.

“Sometimes it just requires the passage of time, " Murphy said. "We saw that with gay marriage.”

Efforts to recognize same-sex marriage in New Jersey took nearly four years before it became legal in 2013.

Murphy said getting a legalization bill passed by the legislature is more challenging than going to referendum and only one of the 10 states with recreational weed has chosen that approach. “This is a more courageous route, and we think we can get it done legislatively," he said. "And it will be a better result.”

It was unclear when the Senate and Assembly would reconsider the bill, which has been debated for more than a year. Sweeney said a vote is just “being postponed” so legislative leaders can make changes in an effort to win more support. Lawmakers could take up the measure in June, but it’s more likely that it will remain on hold until December. The proposal would have permitted door-to-door weed delivery, created a commission to oversee recreational sales, and permitted cannabis cafes similar to cigar bars. Towns that hosted marijuana businesses would be rewarded with a one to three percent tax of the total sales in the municipality.

Asked when the bill would be debated again, Sweeney said, “As soon as I know I have 21 votes.”

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which opposes legalization, declared victory and disputed reports that the vote was close.

Sabet said lawmakers “did the right thing” because he said the bill would have encouraged drugged driving. Sabet said legislators also were concerned about children consuming cannabis-infused gummy candies and the impact on towns that did not want weed dispensaries within their borders.

“It all fell apart because it affects everyone,” Sabet said. “In a deep blue state like New Jersey, this bill fell apart and sends a message to other states, like New York, that this is not a good deal.”

There were a variety of issues that caused some state senators to reject legalization, Sweeney said, including some who were were “philosophically opposed."

Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Newark) was one of those who stood firmly against the bill. “People don’t realize, particularly people in urban communities, how it will affect their lives,” Rice said in a statement. “In urban communities, neighborhoods will struggle against the spread of ‘marijuana bodegas’ disguised as dispensaries.”

Chris Goldstein, an organizer for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the effort fell short because there was dissent “over carving up the tax money.” Goldstein said municipalities wanted to collect more tax dollars for hosting dispensaries, wholesalers, and cultivation centers within their borders. .

Bill Caruso, an attorney with Archer Law in Haddonfield, said another sticking point for some lawmakers was the expungement bill, which was linked to the legalization bill. The expungement bill called for clearing the criminal records of anyone convicted of possessing up to five pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute.

“It’s a number that shocks them,” Caruso said. “Five pounds — ‘that’s a lot of weed,’ they said."

Caruso also said some legislators still worried about how legalized marijuana would impact children, though studies show that in states where cannabis has been legalized, teen use has dropped.

According to a Monmouth University poll, 62 percent of voters in the Garden State support a law that would permit possession of small amounts of cannabis for adult recreational use.

If the measure had succeeded, Murphy had promised to sign it and New Jersey would have joined 10 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing adult use of marijuana. Sales, however, could not have begun until regulations were written and the permitting process completed.

Separate pieces of legislation would have cleared convictions for minor marijuana crimes and expanded the state’s medical marijuana program.

Despite the setback, the legalization bill’s supporters remained optimistic about its long-term prospects.

“We’re not giving up and will keep fighting for adult use recreational marijuana," said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey. " We knew it was going to be really close, and advocates across the state pulled out all the stops and did everything we could. But we are still a few votes short. Some are on the fence and can be convinced.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex), said he could understand how the legalization bill might require more work and time. “This was a big deal," he said. "We sought to change the status quo, which is never easy. We accomplished something today — we didn’t get a touchdown, but we moved the ball to the 1-yard line.”

Sweeney, at an afternoon news conference, said he felt the bill had made significant headway and its supporters had learned “a few lessons about how to do it" and eventually would triumph.

“This is not an issue that’s going away,” Sweeney said. "Marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey one way or another.”

What the bill proposed:

The adult-use legalization act, formally known as Senate Bill 2703, would have taxed and controlled cannabis like alcohol. Cannabis products would have been required to have warning labels that advise consumers about the dangers of impaired driving and health risks.

A five-member commission would have overseen the recreational program.

The commission would decide how many permits would be issued to sell or grow marijuana. The number could be in the hundreds. About 25 percent of permits would go to so-called “microbusinesses” as a way of encouraging mom-and-pops and providing consumers an alternative to Big Marijuana providers.

Anyone 21 and over would be allowed to purchase a variety of cannabis products: flower (bud), vape pens and cartridges, resin, tinctures, and edibles. Marijuana could be consumed in private homes or in permitted consumption lounges similar to cigar bars, that is, cannabis cafes.

Home delivery would be allowed by licensed providers.

Recreational marijuana would be taxed at a flat rate of $42 an ounce.

Municipalities that host cultivators or manufacturers would collect revenue from a 2 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction. Municipalities that are home to a wholesaler would receive the revenue from a 1 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction, while municipalities that are home to a retailer would receive the revenue from a 3 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction.

Advertising would be severely restricted. Messages would need to be well-targeted so that at least 71 percent of the audience is 21 or older. TV and radio ads for cannabis could air only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

What the bill wouldn’t do:

Home cultivation would remain prohibited.

Smoking in public would not be allowed.

No guarantees of lower prices.

Arrests for possession would not stop immediately.