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As legal weed stalls in New Jersey, voters may get a say at the polls

A plan to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is in trouble and some lawmakers are calling for a referendum to let voters decide whether adult-use recreational marijuana should be legalized. But that likely wouldn't be held until 2020.

New Jersey lawmakers are considering allowing voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. In this file photo, Cherry Hill residents arrive at their polling place at the township's community center to vote in the midterm election Nov. 6, 2018.
New Jersey lawmakers are considering allowing voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. In this file photo, Cherry Hill residents arrive at their polling place at the township's community center to vote in the midterm election Nov. 6, 2018.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It was a gaffe, but it was telling.

Hours after a well-orchestrated push to pass a legal-weed bill died in the Trenton statehouse, Gov. Phil Murphy announced to the clicking of cameras that a “postmortem” would be done.

The men standing next to him at the lectern — Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — chuckled and quietly corrected him.

“Or post-op,” Murphy amended. In the coming days, he said, the three Democrats and their staff would surgically analyze why the legalization vote had to be abruptly canceled on March 25 and they would swiftly get the bill back on the agenda.

But nearly two months later, the governor’s reference to a “postmortem” seems like a prescient slip. There still are not enough votes in the Senate to support legalization.

Some lawmakers now want the Legislature to put the question of adult-use recreational marijuana on the ballot, possibly in a referendum during the 2020 presidential election when voter turnout will be high. Some say a constitutional amendment may be warranted.

Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat from Newark who chairs the state Legislative Black Caucus, opposes legalization and recently introduced a bill to hold a referendum. He says legalization hurts urban communities and predicts voters will defeat it.

Though a recent Monmouth University poll found 62 percent of New Jersey residents favor an end to marijuana prohibition, Rice said he doubted that conclusion. “When we talk to everyday people in neighborhoods and explain the difference between recreational and medical marijuana and that they will put marijuana bodegas next to liquor stores and bring in problems, people say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” he said.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Union County who drafted the nearly 200-page legalization bill, said the Senate was only about two votes shy of winning approval. The bill’s passage would bring quicker and better results than a referendum, he said.

But lawmakers have been saying the vote is close for six weeks — only two to five votes short.

“I continue to maintain a referendum would be the last resort, but it’s looking more and more possible,” Scutari said in an interview Thursday. “It would have to be a constitutional amendment to be binding and it better be perfect if we’re changing the constitution.”

Unlike several other states, New Jersey does not allow voters to initiate a ballot question. The Legislature would have to agree to hold a referendum, craft the question, and then act on it if it passes. It would take time.

Other lawmakers want to turn their attention to the more popular medical-marijuana expansion bill, which was strategically linked with legalization and a social-justice bill that calls for clearing the criminal records of those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana, a crime for which minorities are arrested three times as often as whites.

Asked whether the governor would support a referendum and uncoupling the medical-marijuana bill from the bill package, Murphy spokesperson Alyana Alfaro said in an email that he “remains committed to working with the Legislature to both further reform our medical marijuana program and to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana, a critical step in eliminating disparities in our criminal justice system.”

The governor, she said, "believes that the opinions of the overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans who support legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana should be heard.”

But faced with criticism that patients are suffering while waiting for the bill package to win approval, the governor recently set a deadline for the end of May and said he would administratively expand the program if the bill package is still not passed. Statewide, there are only six dispensaries and they struggle to serve 40,000 patients enrolled in the program and new applicants who are signing up at a rate of 100 a day.

Sweeney, a longtime lawmaker from Gloucester County, declined comment for this article. But in recent weeks, he has said breaking apart the linked bills could jeopardize the passage of legalization and the social-justice bill. He also has said he favors the bill package over a referendum, but legalization will “get done one way or another.”

As the clock ticks, Sweeney, a cosponsor, said he will call for a vote only when he has the 21 votes he needs in the Senate for passage. The Assembly reportedly has the support it needs, but Coughlin has said he will wait until the Senate is ready.

Meanwhile, Rice and other lawmakers are calling for Sweeney to bring the medical-marijuana expansion bill to the floor for a vote. “There’s no one against it and the leadership is holding people who are sick hostage to get the legalization bill passed. ... I think it’s wrong to tie them together,” he said, “and maybe we need new leadership.”

Scutari, who sponsored the state’s medical-marijuana bill nearly a decade ago, said the program needs to be expanded and modified, but removing the expansion bill from the package would “pretty much doom legalization because people will use that as an excuse to not deal with the issue.”

The expansion bill is named after Jake Honig, a 7-year-old who died of brain cancer last year and became a medical-marijuana patient in his final days. His father, Mike Honig, of Howell, is urging Murphy and the legislative leaders to move on the bill without further delay.

“We are putting patients in New Jersey behind pleasure-seekers,” Honig said in a Facebook video that grabbed media attention. Soon after that, Murphy set the May deadline.

Honig said cannabis greatly alleviated Jake’s pain in his last two months, but he had to supplement it with oxycodone and morphine and other drugs when the boy’s monthly two-ounce supply of cannabis ran out. State law restricted him to the two ounces and it didn’t last through the month. The stronger drugs took a toll on the child, Honig said, and “it was difficult to watch.”

The expansion bill would allow terminal patients to receive as much marijuana as they need, and also would permit the sale of marijuana oil. Many parents, including Honig, had to make their own oils from the cannabis buds sold at dispensaries because oils and edibles have not yet been approved.

But Honig’s position on separating the bills is softening. “If legalization is going to continue to block medical, patients shouldn’t have to wait anymore. They should uncouple the two bills," he said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m in favor of getting it [medical] passed as soon as possible … but if legalization gets medical passed quicker, that’s a good thing for everybody.”