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New Jersey Lawmakers Admit Failure on Weed Legalization, Will Let Voters Decide in 2020

Legalization seemed a certainty a year ago but political infighting and unflinching legalization opponents doomed the effort.


New Jersey lawmakers have given up hope of legalizing adult-use cannabis and will leave the issue to be decided by a referendum on the 2020 presidential ballot.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

In the meanwhile, the Legislature will push forward a bill to expunge marijuana related criminal records. In recent days Governor Phil Murphy, who won election in part on his vow to pass marijuana legalization, has used his executive authority to dramatically expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

"We are not going to move forward with adult use marijuana at this time. It’s something I feel strongly in, but the votes aren’t there," state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said at a press conference Wednesday. "There's no sense dragging this out,. We can’t hold back progress."

Expansion of the medical marijuana program was part of the failed marijuana legalization push. Doubts that the Legislature would legalize weed have grown since March when a scheduled vote in the state Senate was postponed after it became apparent there were not enough votes to pass the measure.

After the measure stalled in March, Murphy -- a Democrat as are majorities in both houses of the Legislature -- said he would use his executive authority to expand the medical marijuana program if the Legislature did not pass the bill by the end of May. Murphy was scheduled to meet last week with legislative leaders to discuss prospects for the bill. Sweeney, who is locked in an acrimonious dispute with the governor over an unrelated issue, abruptly skipped the meeting, after which Murphy expanded the medical program without waiting until the end of the month.

The referendum could have been put on the ballot for New Jersey's 2019 legislative elections but off-year elections typically draw a smaller turnout than in presidential election years. Some worried that older voters, who are more likely to vote in off-year elections, are less enthused about legalization than young voters who go to the polls in greater numbers in presidential election years.

The expansion of the medical marijuana program will allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis for an additional seven “debilitating medical conditions” --  PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain of visceral origin, chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, migraines, Tourette syndrome and Opioid Use Disorder.

“These rules solidify key program reforms to ensure greater patient access to this effective therapy,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal in a press release. “With these changes, the Department will be able to add conditions more rapidly, remove barriers for minors and increase supply of product available.”

Related: Why Do So Many Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana?

Among other changes, the new rules reduce registration fees for patients and caregivers from $200 to $100; makes seniors and military veterans eligible for a reduced registration fee of $20; bureaucratically elevates makes the Medicinal Marijuana Program to a division within the Department of Health; and will make "oil-based formulations, like vape cartridges" available to patients.

The rules also create a permitting system for cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing marijuana for medical purposes intended to ramp up the supply and variety of medical cannabis. The process of petitioning to add more qualifying medical conditions will also be streamlined. There are currently 46,300 patients, 950 doctors and 1,850 caregivers participating in the program. By one estimate, about 2,000 new patients join the program each month.

Related: Ohio Medical Marijuana Committee Rejects Use of Pot for Depression but OKs It for Anxiety

The deadlock in the New Jersey Legislature persisted despite the support of the governor, the leaders of both houses of the Legislature, criminal justice reform activists and civil rights groups. Public polls have registered broad support for marijuana legalization in New Jersey.

The legalization push has been slowed by disputes over expungement of criminal records and how to channel the anticipated legalization boom to benefit communities of color that have long suffered under aggressive policing.

Lawmakers who, in principle at least, favor expunging marijuana related criminal records balked at a provision in the bill that would have allowed expungement for sales of up to five pounds of cannabis. Advocates have argued there is no practical alternative if lawmakers are sincere about expunging criminal records for minor sales -- New Jersey criminal statutes make no distinction between the sale of one ounce of pot and five pounds.