Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use in New Jersey is facing some opposition from state lawmakers within his own party, as well as Republicans.
While Democrats now hold the governor’s office and a majority in both chambers of the state Legislature, half a dozen Democratic state senators tell NJ Advance Media they plan to vote “no” on any bill legalizing pot for recreational use by adults, leaving its future cloudy.
They include Sens. Joseph Vitale of Middlesex, Ronald Rice and Richard Codey of Essex, Jeff Van Drew of Cape May, Shirley Turner of Mercer and Brian Stack of Hudson County.
Another pair of Senate Democrats — Nicholas Sacco of Hudson County and James Beach of Camden — said they are willing to consider decriminalization but are not yet ready to vote “yes” on a recreational marijuana bill. Both senators cited concerns ranging from unintended social justice ramifications to public safety on roadways.
Democrats hold a 25-15 majority over Republicans in the Senate, 21 votes are still needed in order to pass the bill and get it to his desk to sign. That means Dems can afford to lose the support of four of their own before they secure GOP support.
AID FROM ACROSS THE AISLE?
However, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said he expected his bill to pass, saying it would get at least some Republican support.
“I think your math is wrong,” said Scutari, “This is a process and people will want to — and should — read and review the entire bill before making a decision. … Keeping marijuana illegal just makes drug dealers richer.”
At present, at least two Republicans might break with their party and vote yes.
Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, one of two GOP senators leaning toward the bill, said he has “an open mind” on recreational pot, and wanted to review any proposed legislation before making a decision.
Another, Sen. Dawn Addiego, R-Burlington, declined to comment.
A Burlington County Republican leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Addiego is “leaning towards a yes,” but wants to collect more data and see a final version of the bill.
Two more, Sens. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, and Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said they would be willing to consider voting for decriminalization of marijuana, but were not yet willing to support legalizing the drug for recreational use.
However, eleven of 15 Republican state senators said that would vote “no” on any bill legalizing weed.
Insiders on both sides of the aisle cautioned that the recreational weed bill is still evolving, and various blandishments may yet be added to get recalcitrant senators on-board.
Some of the Democrats who are against the bill, like Rice, said a far more pressing need was to first indemnify and free the disproportionately high number of people of color in the Garden State who have been prosecuted or incarcerated for marijuana possession.
While whites and blacks have used pot at statistically similar rates, black New Jerseyans were arrested at a rate three times higher than whites between 2000 and 2013, according to a June 2017 report by the New Jersey ACLU.
“I’m a product of the civil rights movement, so I know the history of plantation and Jim Crow laws,” Rice said. “When you tell me there are more blacks in prison because of the use of marijuana than white folks, but we shouldn’t be there, that’s insulting to me…The insulting part to me as a black person is, you’re telling me, I shouldn’t be in jail, but you’re gonna keep me there until I make you wealthy, and take care of your Wall Street(-backed cannabis] investors?”
Other Democratic senators say they fear the public safety problems that correlate to legalization in Colorado will arrive in New Jersey, which has the highest population density in the nation.
Trish Graber, a spokesman for Beach, said Beach is not yet ready to vote “yes” for recreational weed over concerns about the safety of public roadways.
“There are people who think you can legalize anything you want, as long as it raises revenue,” said Turner, a senator from Mercer County. “But the problems you create in raising that money are far greater.”
Colorado, a state of some 5 million people, last year earned nearly a quarter billion dollars in tax revenue from the sale of marijuana.
But at the same time, Colorado has also seen an 8 percent rise in homelessness post-legalization of recreational pot, even as many other states have seen broad declines.
Likewise, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has also doubled since 2013, according to federal and state data, and collision claims are 14 percent higher than in neighboring states like Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming
Turner added that even without the attendant problems she believes it causes, legalization of recreational pot “sends the wrong message to our youth that drugs are acceptable.”
Finally, another Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Nia Gill of Essex County, told NJ Advance Media that while she supported legalization of cannabis, the current bill sponsored by Scutari would need revisions to win her support.
In a statement, Gill cited racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Colorado, noting post-legalization increases in the arrests of African-American and Latino youths.
Post-legalization, the marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans remains almost triple that of whites, according to a May 2016 report by the Colorado Dept. of Public Safety.
“I would also like to see a more specific and robust expungement process for marijuana charges included in the legislation,” Gill said.
Murphy, in his inaugural address Tuesday, insisted that “a stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces comprehensive criminal justice reform — including a process to legalize marijuana,” but stopped short of calling for a bill to be sent to his desk for immediate signature into law.
A call to Murphy’s spokesman was not immediately returned.
In an interview with NJ Advance Media last week, Murphy did not give a specific time frame to get the bill passed.
“I don’t want to marry myself to a particular day,” he said. “But I would hope it’s sooner than later.”