The Legal Cannabis Train Goes Off the Rails

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New Jersey’s bid to legalize cannabis collapsed in dramatic fashion Monday when the state’s Democratic leadership conceded just hours before a planned vote that they did not have the support to pass the bill, one that had been carefully negotiated for months.

The landmark cannabis legislation included specific provisions to invest in black and brown communities and a clear path to expunge past cannabis convictions. But it was blasted by the opposition instead as an attempt by the cannabis industry’s Wall Street backers to extract profits from those communities.

Even as state lawmakers vowed to continue to push for the legalization bill, its short-term defeat in a Democrat-controlled statehouse will have effects in New Jersey and, likely, around the region and the country as other state legislatures take up cannabis law reform. For now, Vermont remains the only state where lawmakers have legalized by legislation, with the rest coming by ballot initiative.  

Meagan Glaser, the deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, said early Monday that the votes were there for passage in the Assembly, but supporters were at least two votes shy in the Senate. As pro-cannabis reform groups worked to swing votes, so did the opposition—which ultimately won the day.

“It’s done!” said the opposition’s most visible critic, Kevin Sabet, the founder and president of the anti-cannabis legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “This is a huge victory for the anti legalization movement,” he added in an email to Cannabis Wire. “It proves that in a deep blue state legalization is far from inevitable.”

Similarly, legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York hangs by a thread, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has signaled the bill may need time to win passage. Lawmakers in other northeastern states—Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire—have said they are taking up the cannabis legalization debate in part because legalization in New York and New Jersey seemed imminent, given the endorsement of those state’s governors and key lawmakers.

In a statement, Smart Approaches to Marijuana credited the legalization bill’s inability to advance to the work of state Senator Ron Rice, who heads the legislative black caucus. Rice held town halls across the state in minority communities “to address continued arrest disparities and marijuana industry targeting of minorities” that occurs in legalized states, according to the group’s joint statement with its affiliate, New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy. “His advocacy helped bring other crucial swing votes in the Senate to oppose the bill,” the statement continued.  

Rice himself was quoted in the statement, saying, “This bill was not about social justice and helping black and brown people, it was about wealthy investors making money at the expense of us. I welcome the governor to now consider my bill to decriminalize low level possession and expunge previous convictions.”

Governor Murphy had touted legalization in stark civil rights terms during his campaign, arguing that cannabis arrests in minority communities were one of America and New Jersey’s worst social and political injustices. Over the first part of Murphy’s new term, he negotiated specifics with the bill’s primary sponsors, as well as Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and other key Democratic leaders.

But even though these powerful Democratic lawmakers had announced about two weeks ago that they were on the same page, cracks in Democrats’ resolve on the issue quickly began to appear during committee hearingsafter their announcement. Even as key lawmakers agreed on how cannabis should be regulated and taxed — at $42 an ounce and regulated by a five-member commission appointed by the governor — the legislation didn’t seem to have enough for skeptics and would-be supporters alike. For example, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told lawmakers the bill didn’t go far enough to automatically expunge and free those currently incarcerated from cannabis-related convictions.

And Democrats even seemed confused about the effects of legalization. Bob Smith, a Senate Democrat, cited controversial claims that cannabis use is linked to schizophrenia in his wavering stance.   

Murphy said during a press conference that New Jersey Democrats would continue to fight for the bill, and would push to sway votes, particularly in the Senate. A ballot initiative was less desirable than legislation, he said, because it could tie the legislature’s hands on how to regulate the industry. And he was critical of incremental reforms alone, like decriminalization and expungement of past cannabis crimes, arguing that the state should make the tough decision to end prohibition completely and tax and regulate cannabis so the state has control over the industry and fewer are incarcerated.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” Murphy told reporters.

He compared cannabis legalization with votes on gay marriage or major gun control reform, difficult issues that often take lawmakers years of debate to resolve. “Certainly I am disappointed, but we are not defeated. Our current drug policy regime has stifled opportunity and economic development,” he said. “We will stay in the fight and we will ultimately get there.”

The governor noted that it took him a long time to come around to cannabis legalization, and argued that “the passage of time” may also help some senators come around. “I remain an optimist,” he said.

Sweeney said at the governor’s side that senators were up and down over the last few weeks on legalization. “It was like Whac-A-Mole ” he said of changing votes. “We’ll figure out what we can change to change minds.”

Tyler McFadden of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws told Cannabis Wire that advocacy groups have work to do to convince lawmakers that a new legal cannabis industry will be a boon for minority communities.

“I will say it is understandable that the NJ LBC” —the legislative black caucus, led by Sen. Ron Rice, who was outspoken against the bill — “is cautious about legalization, particularly because we’ve seen that communities of color have not reaped the economic benefits of legalization in a way that comes close to repairing the decades of social and economic trauma that marijuana prohibition enforcement has inflicted upon them,” McFadden said in an email. “Though many people are beginning to seriously talk about what equity means for their communities, we still have a ways to go to make sure marijuana reform is done in an equitable way that benefits all communities, with a particular focus on those that have been criminalized and disproportionately harmed by prohibition.”

Sweeney told reporters he would work to change lawmakers’ minds and hoped to bring the bill back up for a vote this year. “I’m disappointed,” an obviously chastened Sweeney told reporters at his own packed press conference. “Legalization of marijuana will get passed one way or another. I might have underestimated the challenge in getting this passed. The governor made one hell of an effort himself and we’ll be back at this.”

But Sweeney indicated that some senators who weren’t on board didn’t simply oppose aspects of the legalization bill, but, rather, legalization itself. “Listen, there are some people who are just philosophically opposed,” he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which has been the lead advocacy group for medical—and, more recently, adult use—legalization in the state for a decade, said in a statement that the failure to win passage means that the state’s nearly 32,000 annual arrests for cannabis possession would continue, mostly in black and brown communities. The group worked on inclusion of equity-based reforms, including free and expedited expungement for those charged with past low-level cannabis-related crimes and “micro” licenses for small business owners, meaning people with less capital could participate in the new industry.  

“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey,” the Alliance said in a statement.

“If this legislation had passed, these arrests would have been a thing of the past. In addition, thousands of people would have been able to get their marijuana convictions expunged so they could have moved on with their lives. Thousands of jobs would have been created and millions of dollars in tax revenue would have been generated, which could have been used to support families and communities.”

But, in the end, a majority of New Jersey state senators weren’t sold — either on the specifics of the bill, or on whether legalizing cannabis would benefit their communities.

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