New Jersey’s path to marijuana legalization once looked easy.
Phil Murphy, the state’s unabashedly liberal governor, has made legalization one of his top legislative priorities since his election in late 2017. But on Monday, when the state Senate and General Assembly are scheduled to vote on a bill to legalize recreational cannabis for adult use and introduce sweeping reforms to wipe clean the records of current and past marijuana offenders, its fate is far from certain.
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While the Democratic Party’s leadership is with Murphy, support among the rank and file in New Jersey’s deeply blue Legislature is flagging. Murphy’s dreams of a massive homegrown marijuana industry are at risk.
“I don’t know that we’re there yet,” Murphy told POLITICO in an interview Friday, referring to whether there is enough support in the Legislature to pass the bill. “I don’t know that we’ll be there on Monday.”
The size and complexity of New Jersey’s legal cannabis bill, coupled with fierce intraparty skirmishes among the state’s top Democratic lawmakers, has bogged down the legislation’s prospects over the last week. Defeat would be a stinging rebuke to Murphy, functioning as a referendum on his ability to generate support for his priorities within the Legislature.
The delay on legalizing marijuana comes after a bruising budget fight last year between Murphy and legislative leaders that nearly led to a state government shutdown and, more recently, a difficult slog to raising the state minimum wage to $15, a change the Legislature eventually approved.
By all accounts, Murphy has been lighting up the phones, talking with lawmakers and activists throughout the state to drum up support for the legalization bill. But despite strong Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, those efforts may not be enough.
“We have been able to change a number of minds. This can’t be just me to get this done,” Murphy said, noting that he been coordinating with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, both fellow Democrats, to whip votes. “This is an all-in, 1,000 percent effort by the Senate president, speaker, myself. That’s the way we’ve approached it.
“It is what it is,” he said. “As we sit here on Friday morning, we’re not there yet.”
From the outside, it’s difficult to understand how Murphy could have been dealt anything less than a winning hand. His popularity remains above water, Democrats have firm control of the Legislature and an overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans support legalization. Many of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, including some of Murphy’s foes, pledged their support.
But support for the measure among lawmakers has been soft, especially in the Senate, where Murphy has struggled to maintain steady relationships with some members of his own party. Sweeney, in particular, has repeatedly clashed with the governor over his progressive agenda.
And although Sweeney is a sponsor of the legalization bill, senators within the South Jersey delegation over which he exerts major influence have yet to sign on — much to the consternation of Murphy confidants. The Senate president has also asked Murphy deliver yes votes from Democratic state senators who have openly opposed the measure for months.
“I can’t get it done without him,” Sweeney said in an interview. “From what I see, he’s trying. I’m not blaming him. I’m not casting blame at all. The speaker, myself and the governor all understood that all three of us had to do this to get it done.”
While multiple sources around both Sweeney and Murphy say the two are working together to whip support in advance of Monday’s vote, both sides have started to lay groundwork on how to best assign blame in the event the legalization bill fails on Monday.
“Nobody trusts him to deliver on his promises,” a prominent Democrat told POLITICO in a text message, referring to Murphy. “No Gov … of either party in 30 years had their commitments doubted like this guy. That’s why he can’t pass certain things.”
If they don’t have the votes — a distinct, even likely, possibility in the Senate, where 21 yes votes are needed — Sweeney has said he’ll pull the bill and put off a vote until the lame duck session at the end of the year. Murphy has had some success moving votes in the Assembly, two sources told POLITICO. Passage is widely considered a safer bet in the lower house.
Both Murphy and Sweeney were quick to point out that the only other state to advance marijuana legalization through legislation was Vermont. New Jersey’s a larger and considerably more diverse state with a complex mix of urban, suburban and rural legislative districts. And although it’s thoroughly Democratic, its Legislature has traditionally been slow to adopt progressive social policies.
“They’re older,” one senior legislative aide said, ticking off the names of four Democratic senators who are expected to vote against legalization. “If you had a younger Legislature, I think this would be easier.”
That’s created an uphill battle for Murphy — already fighting the perception that he has little sway with lawmakers — to bring the bill over the finish line.
“He’s trying to build a house with no foundation,” according to one source close to the whip process. “If this moves, it’s because Coughlin and Sweeney get it done. And it’ll take [them] less work.”
Further complicating matters is the bill itself, which has ballooned from 68 pages at its introduction to 176 pages in its most current form. Lawmakers will have had just one week to review it before it goes up for a vote.
The central components of the bill allow individuals to keep up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. It would also create a powerful new regulatory body, which would be tasked with taxing and regulating the industry, as well as issuing permits for new cultivators, processors, wholesalers and dispensaries.
The bill goes well beyond laying out a framework for the industry, however. Many of the latest provisions, which both Sweeney and Murphy endorsed, expand the scope of the state’s processes for expunging old criminal records. Past and former offenders who have been convicted of charges as severe as a third-degree felony — distribution of one ounce to five pounds of cannabis — would be able to clear their records.
Another section, colloquially referred to as “virtual” expungement, bars employers, housing authorities, licensing boards and other institutions from considering marijuana convictions in assessing applicants. There are also carve-outs to ensure the Cannabis Regulatory Commission grants at least 15 percent of the licenses for new dispensaries to women and minority-owned businesses.
These provisions was viewed as instrumental in assuring the support of minority Democrats, such as Assembly members Jamel Holley and Annette Quijano — both of whom signed on as sponsors. A late addition, agreed to last weekend, which allows those currently incarcerated, on parole or facing fines for marijuana offenses to petition to vacate their convictions, was instrumental in securing the endorsement of the state’s ACLU.
It’s not clear if that will be enough. As of Friday, the legalization bill is still five or six lawmakers short of obtaining the 21-vote majority needed in the Senate.
“This is standing up an entire industry from scratch. It’s undoing social justices and redoing criminal justice reform,” Murphy said. “I’m not discouraged at all by the complexity or the time that it’s taken. I know some people are saying, ‘Hey gosh, why can’t you just wave a magic wand?’”
There is still a chance Murphy and Sweeney will emerge from Monday’s vote with a victory.
On Thursday, Murphy organized a news conference in which roughly a dozen advocates and faith leaders from North and Central Jersey pressed lawmakers to support the legalization bill on the merits of its criminal justice reform elements.
A day later, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Jersey City Mayor Stephen Fulop gave their endorsement to the measure. Those endorsements could be meaningful for lawmakers in northern New Jersey, where Murphy has more clout, but where some lawmakers have been reluctant to support recreational cannabis.
“We’re counting on the governor,” said Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the legalization bill’s primary sponsor. “It’s a big promise for him, it’s a big issue for me.”