Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey Senate President and co-sponsor of an ambitious bill to expand medical cannabis access and legalize marijuana for adult use, told reporters that he expects the state Senate to hold a vote on legalizing cannabis as early as September. But exactly what lawmakers will be voting on is still unclear. The current proposal, a combined medical and adult-use bill, still needs revision and debate in committee before it can come to a vote. Senate President Sweeney, however, says that despite the long odds and polarized opposition, lawmakers are “getting much closer” to voting on legal marijuana.
New Jersey Lawmakers Struggle To Draft Legalization Bill
Given the progress Gov. Phil Murphy has made on marijuana since taking office, you wouldn’t think the state legislature has been the scene of several delayed negotiations and bitter debates over the prospect of legal adult-use cannabis.
Governor Murphy campaigned on legalizing marijuana and expanding access to medical cannabis. Earlier this year, Murphy delivered on the latter promise, adding more qualifying conditions and growing the program to nearly 25,000 patients.
Yet Gov. Murphy seems to be deferring to lawmakers on the adult-use question. Back in June, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced a bill to further expand New Jersey’s medical cannabis program and legalize cannabis for adults.
But the combination bill faced resistance from the Governor’s office and other lawmakers, including proponents of legalization. Many felt medical expansion and adult use legalization should be separate bills. One of the proposal’s co-sponsors, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said the bill will ultimately be separated.
So the senators went back to the drawing board; they hope to have a final draft of a more amenable version of the bill done by the end of the week. After that, lawmakers will hold hearings to debate it. Depending on the hearings, the Legislature could hold a vote on legal cannabis in September.
How Soon Could New Jersey Vote on Adult-Use Cannabis?
When NJ Advanced media asked Senate President Stephen Sweeney about the vote, Sweeney said, “I think it’s gonna be soon.” But how soon? Sweeney says he and fellow co-sponsors of the legalization bill will have the legislation done in time.
If the bill does make it to a vote in September, it still has a long road ahead. First, the bill needs to pass both chambers of the state legislature—the Senate and the Assembly. Both are Democrat-controlled. Then, Governor Murphy, a Democrat who has vowed to legalize cannabis, will have to sign the bill into law.
Gov. Murphy, however, has made it clear that he won’t just sign any cannabis bill that crosses his desk. Murphy wants to make social justice and criminal legal reform the centerpiece of any adult-use legislation. Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for Gov. Murphy, said the governor views legalization as “a critical step in eliminating racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”
And while the bill awaits a potential September vote, New Jersey prosecutors are already giving some relief to the people and communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. Just last month, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a letter ordering prosecutors to freeze all marijuana court cases until September. It’s effectively a halt on the criminalization of cannabis.
Furthermore, Grewal’s timeline coincides with the Senate’s plan to bring an adult-use bill to a vote in September. And both are clear signs that New Jersey’s Democratic leadership is committed to serious cannabis policy reform.