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

Marijuana legalization in Murphy’s hands, Sweeney says

Governor, Senate president hope for a deal, but ‘people are not ready to compromise,’ Sweeney says

By Nikita Biryukov, January 11 2021 1:12 pm

Whether New Jersey finally passes legislation enabling legal marijuana sales rests with Gov. Phil Murphy after legislators rejected a cleanup bill that would have created penalties for underage use, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said Monday.

“Right now, the ball’s in his court,” Sweeney said. “My members clearly expressed their position to me. I was trying to find a compromise, you know, a middle ground, but it was a policy decision that was made. That language was in there, and my members feel strongly that it needed to stay in there.”

A revolt among legislators, including among bill sponsors, in the Senate Friday effectively killed a cleanup bill that would have levied fines and allowed police to engage minors found carrying the drug with “curbside warnings” or “stationhouse adjustments,” interventions aimed at changing behavior without civil or criminal penalties.

The lawmakers, led by State Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) and Ron Rice (D-Newark), the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, worried those provisions would spur more potentially damaging interactions between law enforcement and the state’s black and Latino residents.

Murphy has not abandoned his bid to include some form of penalties for underage use in the enabling legislation, but lawmakers have urged him to sign the legalization and decriminalization bills already on his desk.

Earlier Monday, he declined to say whether he would put pen to paper on those measures, saying he was “still optimistic we’ll figure something out.”

That may mean compromise, but even with more than two months passed since the state’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana use, Sweeney isn’t sure legislators are ready to bite.

“As much as I tried to compromise, it’s just not — people are not ready to compromise,” he told the New Jersey Globe.

The state’s top Democrats are still in talks on legalization. Murphy said he spoke with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on Friday, when the cleanup bill collapsed, and he spoke with the Senate president Monday morning.

Sweeney declined to describe that talk in any detail, though he said the governor did not put forward a policy proposal.

“We just had a conversation,” he said.

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