With Gov. Christie's surprising reversal on expanding the medical marijuana program comes a new batch of very different bills that would allow recreational cannabis in New Jersey.
Christie is not likely to change his strong opposition to legalization, even though he signed a bill last month allowing patients with post-traumatic stress syndrome to obtain cannabis. It was the first time a mental-health condition was added to the list of qualifying ailments.
But lawmakers say three legalization bills introduced this year would get discussions started, in anticipation of Christie's term ending in 2018.
The newest proposal, introduced last month by Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris), would allow cannabis to be sold the same way as tobacco, to anyone over 19. Carroll, a Libertarian, admits the measure is bold and more "far-reaching" than other marijuana bills.
Though some media reports have said the bill would allow cannabis to be purchased in convenience stores, Carroll said his bill "simply legalizes the product, and doesn't specify where it can be sold." It also does not limit the amount. A companion bill has not been introduced in the state Senate.
Despite Christie's promise to veto such bills and his pledge last year as a presidential candidate to eliminate legalization in other states, Carroll wryly said that he has "high hopes that [Christie] can be persuaded on this; common sense might be contagious."
When pressed on whether an override might be possible, Carroll said: "We'd have to get it posted and passed first. One hypothetical at a time." Carroll was one of the original sponsors of the bill that legalized medical marijuana in 2010. His new bill also would expunge past criminal records for minor marijuana offenses.
"I think this is a way to get the debate going," said Bill Caruso, a founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition of civil rights and legal organizations.
In 2015, a Rutgers University-Eagleton Institute poll found 58 percent of New Jersey residents favor legalization.
Currently, four states and Washington have legalized marijuana. Colorado was the first, two years ago, and was followed by Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the nation's capital. Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will ask voters to decide the issue in next month's elections.
In November, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a municipal prosecutor, introduced the state's first legalization bill. His proposal called for cannabis to be regulated the same way as alcohol, sold by stores with a state license, and restricted to those 21 and over. Under his bill, the product would be taxed and the revenues used for education and other public purposes.
Earlier this year, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), who is considered to be one of the Legislature's most liberal members, introduced a similar bill. His bill also would allow residents to grow three mature marijuana plants at home and would restrict sales to 1 ounce of cannabis. Gusciora also is sponsoring a bill to legalize cannabis in Atlantic City only, to help spur its ailing economy.
Scutari meanwhile has invited lawmakers to join him on a trip to Denver this month to see firsthand how legalization is working in Colorado.
"This trip will allow legislators to see Colorado's marijuana program, from seed to sale. It will offer an in-depth look at the industry and provide an opportunity to meet with and learn from those engaged in developing, launching, and operating the program," he said.
When the lawmakers return, Scutari plans to reintroduce another bill to legalize marijuana, based on lessons learned in that state.