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A bill described as the most comprehensive effort to create a legal, regulated, and taxed marijuana market fell short of the needed 21 votes in the New Jersey Senate on March 25, 2019, despite a down-to-the-wire push from supporters and advocates. The bill was not voted on and can return to the agenda at any point until the end of the year.

“The fight is not over,” said Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney when announcing that the bill would not move forward as expected. The session was set to begin at noon, and despite a morning of appeals from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, supporters were unable to sway enough votes to pass the measure.

Democrats hold the majority in both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature, but the bill met staunch resistance, including from some in their own party.

“This is an issue that's not going away. We've learned. We've made a few mistakes,” Sweeney said at a March 25 press conference after he announced that the bill would not be coming for a vote. “We'll fix them, we'll move forward and we'll come back. The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey one way or another.”

The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey one way or another. Click To Tweet

Supporters of the proposal were disappointed in the narrow defeat — “bummed” was how one advocate described it — but had little time to grieve. According to Kelli Hykes, the director of government relations for Weedmaps, shortly after Sweeney's announcement advocates were regrouping and strategizing about next steps.

“We're not changing the goal. We're changing the plan on how to get there,” she said. “Members of the industry and advocates and legislators have to figure out how we're going to get this over the finish line.”

Possible next steps could include a return to the state Legislature, potentially after the November elections, or bringing the proposal to the voters in a ballot initiative. That most likely would not happen in time for the November 2019 election.

Polls show most in New Jersey support legalization, but Hykes said she believes the legislative option is the best choice. New Jersey's bill included far more detail than any previous effort to launch a legal cannabis market, she said. According to Hykes, a ballot measure can be effective, but the legislative process allows more flexibility for the state to react to a changing market. A referendum also means less incentive for lawmakers to address problems as they arise.

Whatever route is taken, she and other marijuana advocates seem certain it will lead to legal cannabis for adults in New Jersey, despite the setback March 25.

“We're going to get there. New Jersey is going to get there. By no stretch of the imagination is this thing done or dead,” Hykes said.

She said the bill, S 2703,  that was set for a vote March 25 was the best, most progressive piece of legislation that could have been developed. Sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, it included an expedited process for expungement of minor criminal records and language encouraging minority and women-owned businesses in the state's legal cannabis industry. After the vote, Scutari said the bill got further than ever expected, and that the legislative process is the way to go.

“With the governor and the speaker all working together, I think we can get there,” Scutari said after the announcement March 25.

Hykes said leadership did a good job of educating lawmakers on the bill before the vote.

Others agreed.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney says that legalizing marijuana in his state " an issue that's not going away." ( File photo / AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )

“It was a pretty comprehensive debate throughout the past couple of months,” said David Boyer, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), an organization that supported the bill. “There were some things that stall out the process, some details they couldn't get everyone to agree on.”

He, too, said he believes it's only a matter of time before regulated, legal cannabis comes to New Jersey.

“It's not a matter of if marijuana will be legal, it's a matter of when and how,” Boyer said.

It's not a matter of if marijuana will be legal, it's a matter of when and how. Click To Tweet

It's a point several supporters made. Scott Rudder, the president of the NJ CannaBusiness Association, described March 25 as a disappointing day but said his group and other advocates would continue to educate doubters about what he described as the numerous benefits of legalization.

“That said, the fact that we have gotten this far is historic. It is a testament to the amount of work put in by supporters, advocates, and legislators,” Rudder said. “While we await a vote in the Senate and Assembly, we will continue to hope for expansion of the state's medical program.”

Organizations continued to rally for the bill through the weekend, including calls for supporters to reach out to state senators seen as on the fence.

“There's a lot of advocacy going on,” said Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) on March 22. “This is a challenging issue for a lot of legislators.”

She expected the work to continue right up until the vote. On the same day, the mayors to two of New Jersey's largest cities announced their support for the bill. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop announced their support, citing a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that found marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States.  

“No matter Monday's outcome, our stance still remains that the state must be diligent in creating the mechanism to ensure that the expungement process is automatic for all non-violent cannabis arrests,” according to a statement issued March 22.

Even at that point, there were differing opinions on how far from a majority the bill stood, but most saw it as anywhere from three to six votes short in the Senate. The Assembly was also set to vote on March 25. In that chamber, advocates believed there were more than enough votes to approve the bill.

In a prepared statement issued March 25, Sweeney said supporters must learn from the experience and move forward.

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult-use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Sweeney said on March 25. He also praised Murphy's efforts. “While this legislation Is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage. The Senate was very close to 21 votes and, with more education and advocacy, I believe we will get this legislation over the finish line.”

Murphy had made legalization a campaign promise and continually called for taxed, legal cannabis while in office. In numerous public statements, he presented the issue as a matter of basic fairness as much as a way to boost revenue, arguing that minorities bear the brunt of the existing drug laws.

On March 22, Murphy tried to rally support in a press conference. He described the proposed bill as a better way to keep marijuana away from juveniles than the current prohibition. The status quo is not working, he said.

“Our kids are exposed with no regulation. The bad guys run the business. They make the money. And again the social justice issues are not cured,” Murphy said. “So if we don't get done on Monday that's what we'll default to on Tuesday.”

He described the improved process on expungements as historic and unprecedented, and a chance for New Jersey to do something no other state has done. At the same event, Assembly member Annette Quijano said citizens, the courts and law enforcement officials agree the state's current expungement process is cumbersome and often very expensive. Her bill included language to streamline that process and to improve record keeping.

Her proposal would also keep marijuana convictions from being considered for job applications, for those seeking housing and for financial aid.

“So much time and effort and thought has gone into this bill,” she said.

While Murphy and Quijano focused on social justice issues, others saw the chance of new tax revenue and many new jobs. Marijuana Business Daily projected a legal cannabis market in New Jersey could bring in up to $1.5 billion in annual sales by 2023. A 2016 report prepared by New Jersey Policy Perspective, along with New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, found that the state could bring in $300 million in taxes a year from legal marijuana.