New Jersey Cancels Vote on Cannabis Legalization
Top photo: © K.L. Kohn | Adobe Stock

New Jersey Cancels Vote on Cannabis Legalization

Lawmakers called off the March 25 vote after failing to gain enough votes.

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March 25, 2019

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. ET on March 25 to reflect comments received from Gene Markin, partner at Stark & Stark.

New Jersey lawmakers canceled their March 25 vote on a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis, citing lack of support in the Senate.

“I'm disappointed,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said at a news conference. “I think we were making headway. I think we've learned a few lessons about the way we approached it. If it was easy, every state would have done it this way.”

Gene Markin, partner at Stark & Stark, said that although he is uncertain which particular issues kept the bill from garnering enough support, the lack of votes could have stemmed from the expungement provisions included in the legislation.

"Some of the representatives wanted automatic expungements, which would be a remedy for all those people who got caught up and got records," Markin told Cannabis Business Times. "The bill has a legal process for the expungements where you have to hire an attorney and go through a paperwork process to get it. ... But it’s my understanding that there’s no way to create an automatic expungement process. You can’t because you need to have the paperwork to identify the specific person, the place [and] what the conviction or charge is that you’re looking to expunge. You need that process in order to get it right."

The future of legal marijuana is now uncertain as lawmakers turn their attention to the state budget, which has a July 1 deadline, according to a NorthJersey.com report. Legislative efforts will likely be postponed until after the November elections, when all 80 seats in the Assembly are on the ballot, NorthJersey.com reported. And if leaders ultimately cannot gain enough support in the legislature, they could place the issue on the ballot next year, according to a NJ.com report.

Last week, the Assembly Appropriations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve the bill, titled the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act, which set up the March 25 floor votes. Broadly speaking, the legislation would legalize the possession and personal use of one ounce or less of cannabis for adults 21 and older, establish a five-member regulatory commission, establish a tax on cannabis sales, dismiss all pending cannabis convictions of possession of up to five pounds and prohibit employers from considering past cannabis convictions during the hiring process, among other provisions.

Gov. Phil Murphy has placed cannabis legalization at the forefront of his policy platform, and Sweeney said Murphy and fellow Democrats worked over the last week to persuade lawmakers to pass the bill, NJ.com reported. While the Assembly had the 41 required votes to pass the legislation, the Senate only had 17 or 18 of the necessary 21 necessary votes.

“We moved closer to the goal than ever before,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in a statement. “Today does not mark the end of the process and effort. I remain committed to enacting the legislation.”

The canceled adult-use legalization vote also postponed two other measures tied to the bill, NJ.com reported: one that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program and another that would expunge thousands of past marijuana convictions. Murphy has indicated that if the legalization vote did not materialize, his administration would increase the number of medical marijuana cultivation licenses as a backup plan, NJ.com added.

"The problem is they have to do it under the old regime, which is the vertically integrated [alternative treatment centers] (ATCs), broken out by regions," Markin said. "It’s still under the old paradigm. If they were to push out new licenses, it would be under that instead of having a new framework, which this bill, had it been passed, would have provided."

New Jersey awarded six additional medical cannabis business licenses in December, which could also delay or deter the state from issuing new licenses, Markin added.

"I don’t know that they’re going to, just because they just had six [licenses] awarded in December and they still need to get up and running," he said. "I think it will depend on the demand, ... factoring in that these new six will become operational maybe by the end of the year. "

Regardless, Markin believes that although efforts have been delayed, the state is still on track to legalize cannabis at some point soon.

"I think we’re still going in the right direction," he said. "Obviously, things take longer always than expected. I think certainly if there’s any activity or movement in New York or [Pennsylvania], then that would certainly put pressure on New Jersey and we might actually get a favorable vote by the end of the year. But right now, it’s a slow-moving machine."