Home>Feature>Lawmakers running short on time to introduce marijuana measures

New Jersey Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Lawmakers running short on time to introduce marijuana measures

As deadlines loom, some look to delay Assembly quorum

By Nikita Biryukov, February 03 2021 3:14 pm

Negotiations on marijuana legalization are threatening to brush against another procedural deadline as lawmakers in the upper chamber continue talks on a cleanup bill creating penalties for underage users.

No breakthrough has come since the Assembly advanced a new cleanup bill last Friday, and a Feb. 8 Assembly quorum call that could see the bill made law without Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature is fast approaching.

But an earlier deadline could further complicate the already winding path to legalization. The Senate has until 11:59 p.m. Saturday to introduce a bill that can reach the chamber’s floor ahead of Monday’s quorum call.

Lawmakers can introduce a bill and place it directly onto second reading, circumventing the need for a committee hearing, but such bills must still wait one calendar day before seeing a vote on the Senate floor.

A Senate source emphatically said lawmakers would not hold a quorum on Saturday, leaving Friday the soft deadline.

They could introduce the bill even later providing they moved it on an emergency basis, but that is exceedingly unlikely. To move an emergency, they’d need to win support from 75% of the chamber’s members.

The legalization bill passed with only 23 yes votes in the upper chamber, seven short of the 30 needed for an emergency. While Democrats may secure support from State Sens. Ron Rice (D-Newark) and Paul Sarlo (D-Woodridge), who voted against the legalization bill in December, winning over five Republicans is almost certainly too tall an order.

All 15 GOP senators voted against the legalization bill, and they’ve maintained their opposition throughout the process, worrying over a lack of employer protections sought by business groups.

But the Feb. 8 deadline isn’t immovable. In New Jersey, bills that sit on the governor’s desk for more than 45 days become law when the chamber they originated in holds its next quorum call.

There’s nothing stopping Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) from delaying the quorum, and the legalization bill’s Senate sponsor is already looking to push the deadline.

“We’re trying to extend any deadlines that we need to in order to get this done and not have to start from scratch,” State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) said.

Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for Coughlin, declined to comment on the possibility of a delay.

Near daily talks on legalization have pressed on, though few policy prescriptions have emerged from the meetings.

While objections from some Black lawmakers in the upper chamber over penalties for minors persist, that opposition isn’t universal.

The detractors, led by Rice, a legalization opponent who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, worry that curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments for minors found in possession of marijuana would increase police interaction with Black and Brown youth.

The cleanup bill advanced by an Assembly committee last week was sponsored by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson), who is Black. Two other LBC members, Assemblywoman and caucus vice chair Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) and Assemblyman Bill Spearman (D-Camden), voted in its favor.

That measure did not eliminate stationhouse adjustments or curbside warnings, instead renaming them juvenile interventions and point-of-violation warnings while keeping the substance of the intervention methods intact.

It also brought down fines for users aged 18-20 from up to $250 or not more than $500, depending on the quantity of marijuana, to discrete fines of $50 or $100. Advocates were concerned a range of fines could be applied unequally, including along racial lines.

A source familiar with discussions the LBC held Tuesday told the New Jersey Globe the group views the new bill as a framework for further talks but added the caucus had “run into competing ideas on timing and policy.”

Scutari isn’t looking for unanimity in the LBC, but he does want at least three of the Senate’s Black members — Sens. Rice, Troy Singleton (D-Delran), Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), Shirley Turner (D-Lawrenceville) and Nia Gill (D-Montclair) — on board before moving forward.

“Am I personally willing to push it? If there’s a majority of that caucus’s membership in favor, yea,” Scutari said. “I’m not going to let one or two people hold this up, but obviously if it’s universal, that’s a different story.”

But the source familiar with the caucus’s discussions said lawmakers aren’t pressed by the looming deadline, saying none of the members felt “bound by any specific timeframe to get something done.”

A senior administration official told the New Jersey Globe they don’t expect Murphy to issue a veto this week. At earliest, that would come Monday, though the source said veto timing would shift along with the deadline.

If the governor does strike the legalization and decriminalization bills on his desk, as he threatened to do last week, the process is likely to start anew. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford)last week told the Globe, in no uncertain terms, the Senate would not concur with a conditional veto.

“If the governor CVs the bills on his desk, we’re starting brand new,” he said last Thursday.

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