N.J. Leaders Concede They Won’t Meet Their Deadline For Marijuana Legalization Vote

“It’s hard to do it legislatively, I admit,” NJ Gov. Phil Murphy Photo: AP/Seth Wenig

The top lawmakers in the state Legislature said Monday say they have scrapped a plan to vote Oct. 29 on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey because they remain at odds with Gov. Phil Murphy over what the law should say.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, vowed the vote will occur before the end of the year.

They also stressed that “very few” points of contention are left to hash out with the Murphy administration, and remain optimistic they could reach an accord.

The latest delay – one in a series of soft deadlines lawmakers have bandied about – does not come as a surprise. Any bill must pass committee hearings in both houses of the Legislature and no hearings have been scheduled.

But the admission by Coughlin and Sweeney shows how much more work remains for what is a top priority for Sweeney and Murphy, a fellow Democrat, since January.

“This is a seismic shift in public policy, and the creation of a new industry. We want to make sure we get it right,” Coughlin said during an unrelated press conference at the Statehouse in Trenton. “If that takes more time, so be it.”

There are still too few Senators willing to vote yes to make marijuana sales legal, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said.

Sweeney, who last month said he was certain Oct. 29 was a likely date for the vote, said picking a target has helped drive the discussions within both houses and the governor’s staff.

“If we did not put a date on this, we would be talking about this next October,” Sweeney said Monday. “That’s why we have been putting so much effort and time into it.”

Coughlin and Sweeney said they and Murphy remain apart on “very few issues,” although they have declined to discuss them publicly.

People familiar with the negotiations say Sweeney and Murphy differ on how much sales tax people should pay for marijuana, with Sweeney insisting more than 12 cents on the dollar would be too steep to make a dent in the illegal market. Murphy privately sought a higher tax rate but publicly he has not revealed his preference.

Both sides also disagree over how much authority a yet-to-be-created independent cannabis commission should have to expand the number of cannabis growers and sellers and other aspects of the new industry. Sweeney wanted to give more power to a full-time independent authority, while Murphy wants the commission to be part-time with the Department of Health holding the most responsibility.

Beyond Monday, Oct. 29, there is one more voting session scheduled this year for both houses, on Dec. 17. But Sweeney and Coughlin could add more voting sessions.

Last week, Sweeney said Murphy must take a greater interest in helping secure enough votes to get the bill passed. Murphy said he would do so, once Sweeney sent him a list of lawmakers he should talk to.

“We are basically two guys who share a common objective trying to get it over the goal line,” Murphy told NJ Advance Media last week.

On Monday, Sweeney said he sent that list to the governor.