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Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Decrim dead in lame duck, Sweeney says

Measure won’t move before noon next Tuesday

By Nikita Biryukov, January 06 2020 2:03 pm

New Jersey lawmakers won’t pass a bill to decriminalize marijuana before noon next Tuesday, Senate President Steve Sweeney said on Monday.

“It’s not getting done in lame duck,” Sweeney told the New Jersey Globe.

While Sweeney and other top Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker, have publicly backed decriminalization as a stop-gap measure as residents await a legalization referendum no the ballot this year, there’s been little action on the issue since the legislature’s legalization efforts came to a complete stop.

Sweeney and others insisted for weeks that marijuana decriminalization could get done during the lame duck session, but there was little evidence — publicly or privately — that the issue was a top priority for any Democratic leaders within the legislature.

Sweeney has said on previous occasions that he had meetings scheduled with State Sen. Ron Rice, a chief decriminalization backer and staunch opponent of marijuana legalization, but those meetings never materialized.

One scheduled for Dec. 16, the last session day before lawmakers broke for the holidays, was cancelled while Senate Democrats scrambled and failed to get enough votes to pass a bill eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines.

On Monday, Sweeney said there had been meetings between his staff and Rice’s but declined to say whether he and the senator were scheduled to meet in the coming days.

Support for decriminalization among legislative leaders and Murphy, has often lacked vigor.

The governor frequently bashed decriminalization as a half measure while campaigning for legalization and gave it a tepid endorsement only after his counterparts in the legislature decided to put the issue on the ballot.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley, the Assembly’s point person on legalization, has said he’s “not a big fan” of decriminalization despite being a sponsor of the legislation.

While a New Jersey Globe tally confirmed that the Democrats in the State Senate have more than enough votes to pass decriminalization — even in the absence of a final bill — some legalization supporters have expressed concerns that decriminalizing could endanger November’s marijuana referendum.

They fear pro-marijuana voters could become complacent if the state decriminalizes.

Ballot questions in New Jersey already get about half as many votes as the top of the ticket.

Older voters, whose views on marijuana tend to be more negative, are more likely to reach the bottom of the ballot.

Gov. Phil Murphy last month signed a bill allowing for the expungement of low-level marijuana offenses.

Originally paired with a marijuana bill package that included a legalization measure, that law now exists in a sort of twilight zone, allowing for the expungement of something that residents can still be arrested for.

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