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N.J. canceled a vote on legal weed. Now there’s a battle over how to fix the bill.

As New Jersey legislative leaders try to get the last votes needed to legalize recreational marijuana, supporters are divided over strategy and changes that should be made.

Heather Randazzo, a grow employee at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary, trims leaves off marijuana plants in the company's grow house in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
Heather Randazzo, a grow employee at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary, trims leaves off marijuana plants in the company's grow house in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.Read moreJulio Cortez / AP

A stunning decision to abandon a vote on legalizing marijuana last month was reached because New Jersey lawmakers needed “just a few” more yes votes to get the historic bill passed.

That was the explanation Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin provided March 25 to a throng of media. The three Democrats stood together and promised the bill would be reworked and approved.

But now, patience is running thin among lawmakers, lobbyists, and medical-marijuana advocates. There are divisions among supporters over how to change the bill. Opponents are also ramping up their arguments, with one senator, Michael Doherty, a Warren County Republican, boldly calling the nearly 200-page bill “a deal with the devil.”

All eyes are now on May, with Murphy and legislative leaders saying they are optimistic they can court more votes and get the bill passed.

“I want to believe it will happen this summer, but I don’t see what’s changed. … I think there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll have to start from scratch in January,” said Jay Lassiter, a longtime marijuana activist and outspoken political lobbyist from Cherry Hill.

The legal-weed bill has been the subject of fiery debate, hearings, and committee votes over the last year, and if it is put up for a floor vote and fails, lawmakers would have to wait until January and start the whole process over because of legislative rules. Sweeney, a cosponsor of the bill, has said he won’t call for a vote until he has enough votes for it to pass — 21 in the Senate and 41 in the Assembly.

“We don’t have a specific timetable because we are all still working to gain the needed votes and we still need the Governor to do his part to get that done," Sweeney said in a statement emailed to The Inquirer. "Legalizing marijuana is a significant change in public policy so legislators are being very thoughtful in making their decisions. Once we have the ‘21’ and ‘41’ votes needed we will move forward.”

Meanwhile, opponents say legalization would send the wrong message to children, increase drug use, and lead to drugged driving and more accidents. Some lawmakers support the concept of legalization but are holding out, saying towns should receive more of the tax revenue from cannabis sales. Others object to a companion bill that would clear the criminal records of small-time drug dealers.

Ken Wolski, the longtime executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana--New Jersey, sighed when pressed for his opinion on whether the bill will pass before the summer. “I would say there’s an outside chance. I want to put the best spin on it that I can. Hope springs eternal, and I think some fence-sitting legislators might be induced to change their minds given accurate information. But a significant number opposes it and their remarks at the hearing were distressing and outrageous.”

Ten years ago, the state legalized medical marijuana for patients who obtain a doctor’s permission. Wolski, who worked to pass that law, said he thought the stigma surrounding marijuana had faded because of patients’ compelling stories and polls that show a majority now favor legalization. He was shocked to hear some state senators describe marijuana as “pure evil.”

If New Jersey passes the legalization bill, it would become the 11th state to do so.

The measure is broad and would go beyond most states’ legalization laws in its scope. The bill is part of a package linked to a companion bill that would make significant changes to the medical marijuana program.

The package is also inseparably tied to a racial and justice bill that would allow for speedy expungements, or clearing minor criminal convictions for marijuana possession. That bill also calls for minorities to be included in the cannabis industry to reverse the discriminatory effects of the war on drugs.

Sweeney has said the bills were linked for strategic reasons, but some supporters now want them to receive separate votes.

Mike Honig, whose 7-year-old son, Jake, died of brain cancer a year ago, last week urged Murphy and lawmakers to press forward with the medical-marijuana bill. Cannabis alleviated Jake’s pain more than other medications he was prescribed in his final days, but state law limited him to two ounces a month, not enough to get him through the month, said Honig, of Howell Township. The medical bill would allow terminal patients to obtain three ounces a month.

“There’s a moral problem here,” he said in a March 27 Facebook video. “We’re withholding medication from people like Jake in order to twist the arms of people who might not be inclined to vote for recreational marijuana.”

Days later, Murphy said that he spoke with Honig, who also supports recreational legalization, and decided to set a deadline of the end of May to get the bill package passed. If that fails, Murphy said he would move forward with expanding the medical-marijuana program without the legalization bill’s passage.

“I’m prepared to hold off for a short amount of time. … I’m open-minded and supportive for the legislature to go back at it and find those last few votes we couldn’t get,” the governor said in a statement.

Lassiter, a medical-marijuana patient who uses cannabis to alleviate symptoms of HIV, said the medical-marijuana bill and the expungement bills would “easily sail through” if they were not tied to the legalization bill, which he said is complicated and seems to require further debate.

“We should not be holding sick people hostage for strategic purposes, thinking medical will give recreational a sort of halo effect,” he said.

Sweeney addressed the issue of separating the bills in an emailed response to The Inquirer on Thursday. "The three bills have been part of a package because there is an interconnection between adult-use marijuana, medicinal marijuana and the reform of failed drug laws. The Governor, the Speaker and I also believe there is a greater chance of gaining legislative approval if we act on all the bills together. Greatly expanding medical marijuana by itself could be de-facto legalization, absent the social justice reforms that are so important.”

Some bill supporters see momentum and anticipate that the package will survive intact.

“The three most powerful folks in Trenton are supporting it and are unified around it, and all the advocates — the ACLU, the NAACP, the Latino Action Network and the Drug Policy Alliance — are all for it. … There’s a robust, comprehensive network behind this bill,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU–NJ.

The vote cancellation, he said, was a setback. “But look at the trajectory,” Sinha said.

Bill Caruso, a Haddonfield attorney and board member of the nonprofit New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, said lawmakers are closer than they have ever been. He said lawmakers have said that they’re only one or two votes short. There also are “five to seven senators in play,” and there’s some horse-trading that is changing some senators’ minds, he said.

“I think they [lawmakers] will try to get this done in May, and there seems to be enough support for it,” Caruso said. “But this is contingent on so many different things coming together. … We’ll know like a month from now.”