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Legalized pot in New Jersey - not so fast

Legalization of marijuana in New Jersey has slowed as lawmakers explore a wide variety of options and try to reach a consensus. Some lawmakers expected the proposal would have advanced more quickly after Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on the promise he would sign a legal pot bill as governor, was elected.

At New Jersey’s first hearing on legal pot this year, held in the statehouse, Colorado state Rep. Dan Pabon testifies about how  legalization worked in his state.
At New Jersey’s first hearing on legal pot this year, held in the statehouse, Colorado state Rep. Dan Pabon testifies about how legalization worked in his state.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN

When New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced a 62-page bill and primer on how to legalize marijuana almost one year ago, he chuckled when asked if it had a prayer of passing.

The legal sale of recreational marijuana had not yet begun in any other East Coast state, and yes, Chris Christie, the Republican governor at the time, had threatened a veto.

The bill, Scutari insisted, would give lawmakers time to digest and debate the issue so that a palatable package would be "ready for the next governor."

Gov. Murphy, a Democrat who promised on the campaign trail that he would give legal pot the green light, is now in his third month in office.  But no legalization bill has landed on his desk. None has even made it to the floor for debate, despite a Democratic majority in the Legislature and pledges from party leaders that this would be a priority.

"Many lawmakers are still undecided," Scutari, a Democrat from Union County, said last week. In January, he predicted legalization would be approved by the spring, possibly the summer at the latest.  But now he says it might take a little longer.

"Politicians are not known as a courageous bunch, and it's a topic people want to get comfortable with. … After 90 years of indoctrination that this is a bad substance, we have to turn people around, educate them," said Scutari, a municipal prosecutor who two years ago led a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Colorado, the first state in the nation to legalize, to see for themselves how it was working.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., have approved recreational marijuana, and New Jersey was expected to be in the next wave, behind Massachusetts.  But some New Jersey lawmakers are suggesting alternatives, and legal pot may not be a certainty after all, at least for now.

Last September, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59 percent of New Jersey residents supported legal pot, while a Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted in November pegged the number at 53 percent. Then, last month, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found support had dropped to 42 percent.

"We're starting with a blank slate, looking at all the options," Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, a Democrat, said last week as he convened the first hearing on legalization at the New Jersey statehouse this year.

Danielsen is "Switzerland, very neutral" on the topic, said Wayne Dibofsky, his chief of staff.

As the chairman of the obscure Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee, Danielsen invited more than two dozen  speakers to testify for and against legalization during a five-hour, standing-room-only session.

He plans to hold three more hearings across the state — this time to gather public input — over the next three months.  Meanwhile, at least 15 competing marijuana bills, each with a different flavor and vision, have been proposed in the Assembly, signaling a lack of consensus.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who had cosponsored Scutari's bill, broke away last month and introduced his own plan. It's very similar to Scutari's proposal, but it would allow people to grow marijuana plants at home, a rallying point for marijuana activists and medical-marijuana patients who say that provision will make cannabis more affordable and accessible.

Scutari and Gusciora, a Democrat from Mercer County, had pioneered the state's medical-marijuana program, which was adopted eight years ago.  But they spent years holding hearings and building a consensus among lawmakers before the program was finally approved.  Pennsylvania launched its own program a few weeks ago as dispensaries opened.

Some New Jersey lawmakers now say they prefer expanding and improving the medical-marijuana program rather than legalizing cannabis outright. Currently, only patients with one of a dozen or more conditions qualify to use marijuana, with a doctor's consent. A special panel last year recommended that chronic pain and a variety of other ailments be added to the list.

Under most legalization plans, adults 21 and over would be able to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis for recreational or medical use. The purchases would be taxed. Murphy has said he expects this could generate about $300 million in state revenue each year.

Last month, Sen. Ron Rice Sr., a Democrat who leads the black caucus, proposed an alternative to legalization. He introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana – that is, treat possession of small amounts like a traffic ticket, with a civil fine. He invited representatives of an anti-legalization group, New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, to speak at his news conference when he unveiled the plan.

Rice said that one of the arguments for legalization is that minorities are disproportionately arrested and jailed for marijuana possession. His bill would address that problem without risking an increase in drug addiction that legalization could spark, he said.

"Expectations were high that Murphy would get this done quickly," said Jay Lassiter, a marijuana activist from Cherry Hill and former statehouse lobbyist who has watched the issue closely. But Lassiter said lawmakers have split into factions and legalization may now be delayed many more months.

Legal pot has also become a hot topic at community meetings, churches, town councils, and civil rights gatherings as people come to grips with how it could impact their lives.

The Ocean and the Monmouth County freeholder boards recently passed resolutions opposing recreational pot. Likewise, local officials in Point Pleasant and Berkeley, at the Shore, voted to ban dispensaries. Other towns, including Asbury Park and Jersey City, have taken a position in support of legalization.

Last week,  the NAACP in Gloucester County sponsored a meeting and discussion titled "Marijuana Legalization, Faith, Facts and Fiction" that drew about 150 people to a Woodbury church. "As New Jersey considers marijuana legalization, it is vitally important that the faith community weighs in. The history, the effects and the devastation marijuana prohibition has had on community of color is undeniable," the announcement said.

The hearing held by Danielsen's Assembly committee to gather input from South Jersey residents will be Saturday, April 21, at 9 a.m. at Rowan University.  Danielsen said that after the committee weighs the testimony it already took and after listening to comments from the public, the Assembly will be ready to take a closer look at the various proposals to legalize marijuana.

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.