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Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Nicholas Scutari. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Marijuana negotiations appear dead after Senate cancels hearing

Scutari says legalization talks won’t restart in immediate future

By Nikita Biryukov, February 17 2021 4:54 pm

Hopes for a deal on a marijuana legalization cleanup bill appear dead after Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) cancelled a committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

The cancellation means lawmakers won’t be able to move a cleanup bill to full votes before each chamber for Friday, when Murphy must veto legalization and decriminalization bills on his desk lest they become law at noon without his signature.

For months, legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy have jockeyed on how to implement the state’s legal marijuana market after voters overwhelmingly approved legalization at the polls.

Lawmakers sent decriminalization and legalization bills to his desk on Dec. 17. Those bills have sat there, gathering dust, in the time since.

Murphy objected to provisions in those bills that appeared to remove penalties for underage use of black-market marijuana that the bills sponsors, Scutari and State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), have said were intentional.

Multiple efforts at a cleanup bill have stalled, most recently a back-up plan to align language between the legalization and decriminalization bills. Others died after objections from Black and Brown legislators, who feared penalties in other cleanups — fines and non-criminal intervention methods — would expose youth in communities of color to unnecessary police interactions.

They want Murphy to sign the existing bills, but the governor has signaled he’ll veto them absent new penalties, a move that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) will restart marijuana negotiations from scratch.

Don’t expect new bills anytime soon.

“If he vetoes it, yea, we’ll be going back to the drawing board, but I don’t know when that’s going to be,” Scutari said. “That’s going to be not now. We’ve got to get into the budget. We’ve got a lot of other things. It can’t just be a lot of marijuana all the time, and that’s not just me. There’s been a lot of members that have spent a lot of time on this now.”

New Jersey 101.5 was first to report the Wednesday’s hearing’s cancellation.

Procedural deadlines complicated the negotiation process. The legalization and decriminalization bills were sent to Murphy’s desk on Dec. 17. They sat there unsigned until they passed a 45-day threshold that would see them made law at the next Assembly quorum.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) delayed his chamber’s Feb. 8 caucus, also postponing several committee hearings to consider bills that would have been introduced that day. It was rescheduled, along with voting sessions, for Thursday but pushed back a day further because of inclement weather.

Legislative sources expect no further delay, and Wednesday’s cancelled committee meeting means it’s too late to get a bill to the floor for Friday unless Democrats can secure enough votes to move it on an emergency basis, which they can’t.

The failure to legalize could open Democrats up to political fallout. Legalization was supported broadly at the polls, and the standstill has increasingly drawn voters’ ire in recent weeks.

“The people have spoken. They expect legislation. They expect this to begin, and a veto would really be a bad sign,” Scutari said. “All that means is this is going to happen this year, and I would expect that the voters would not be happy.”

The senator isn’t concerned the saga will impact his own political fortune.

“I’m not worried about it. I’ve done everything I can do,” he said. “I can pass it. I can sponsor it. I can’t sign it. I’ve been the leading proponent of legalized marijuana for over a decade, so I’m proud to run on my record of what we’ve done, but it’s one person standing in between it.”

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