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

Marijuana talks resume as Assembly discusses delaying Friday proceedings

Sweeney whipping votes on cleanup bill held in Senate Tuesday, but lawmakers’ optimism still limited

By Nikita Biryukov, February 18 2021 2:28 pm

Update: After this story was published, the Assembly cancelled its Friday voting session and five committee meetings slated for the same day.

Lawmakers in the Senate reversed course Thursday after abandoning an effort to pass a marijuana cleanup bill they hope will convince Gov. Phil Murphy to sign legalization and decriminalization bills on his desk a day earlier, and Assembly leaders are discussing delaying proceedings set for Friday to provide more time for negotiations, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has entered the fray directly and is whipping votes for an amended version of the bill State Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s (D-Linden) held in the chamber’s Judiciary Committee Tuesday, legislative sources told the New Jersey Globe.

“I’m working it. I haven’t given it up yet,” said Sweeney, who declined to say if he was lobbying lawmakers on the bill.

That cleanup bill would create a graduated warning system for minors found in possession of marijuana. On the first offense, they’d receive a written warning. The next one would involve the same coupled with a notification to the minor’s parent or guardian.

The third offense would see minors referred to community-based groups. A previous version called for fines of up to $50 or community service on the third offense, but those provisions were pulled over objections from Black and Latino lawmakers, who worried over the impact such penalties could have on youth in communities of color.

Users aged 18, 19, and 20 found in possession of marijuana are subject to fines of up to $50.

Hopes have risen from Wednesday’s nadir, when Scutari, the Senate’s main legalization advocate, cancelled a Judiciary Committee hearing to advance the cleanup bill and a backup measure that would bring into line disparate penalties for underage possession in the legalization and decriminalization bills on Murphy’s desk.

But Scutari, the judiciary chairman, still isn’t overly optimistic.

“We’re working on it. I’m not speaking in any kind of glowing, positive way that it’s going to happen, but it’s possible,” Scutari said. “The Senate President’s engaged and trying to get votes. I’d love to see the governor try to help us get some votes, but we’ll see how it goes.”

The senator’s backup bill won’t move. Its provisions were opposed by the Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses, and with time still a major factor, the Assembly would likely need a two-thirds supermajority to move it on an emergency basis, something that would support from at least two Republicans.

So far, lawmakers are still working under a deadline that’ll come at noon tomorrow, but a senior Assembly Democrat told the New Jersey Globe leaders in the chamber were discussing delaying a Friday voting session.

No decision’s been made yet, and that’ll likely remain the case until the chamber’s Democrats hold their 4 p.m. leadership meeting.

Such a delay would allow the Senate to move their cleanup bill through a committee tomorrow, with full votes before both chambers on Monday.

But the bill’s path is still complicated. Black and Latino lawmakers in the Senate are pushing to lower the threshold to criminally charge police officers who illegally search minors by removing a requirement that an officer’s action was meant to intimidate or discriminate against an individual on the basis of their protected class.

That provision is likely to draw some opposition from the chamber’s more moderate Democrats, like State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Washington Township), a former New Jersey State Police colonel, but Black and Latino lawmakers are unlikely to support a bill that keeps the status quo in place.

“Sometimes you push too far one way and you lose the other way, so we’re trying our very best to figure this out,” Sweeney said.

The front office doesn’t want the threshold reductions in the bill, but a senior administration official told the New Jersey Globe it’s not enough to stop Murphy from signing them.

The governor has held kept his pen away from legalization and decriminalization bills sent to his desk on Dec. 17 over a concern about a lack of penalties for minors.

Lawmakers in the Senate have jockeyed to secure the 21 votes needed to pass a cleanup bill, but they’ve so far failed to reach that threshold despite numerous proposals from their chamber and the Assembly.

The delays are an increasing source of aggravation for lawmakers, multiple sources in both chambers told the New Jersey Globe.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has already delayed one of his chamber’s quorums, a move that stopped the chamber’s legislators from introducing bills and holding a spate of committee hearings originally slated for Feb. 8.

The failure to reach a deal has drawn a rising tide of pro-legalization residents and some Republicans.

“All business is halted because people of the same party can’t get their act together,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville). “It’s embarrassing.”

The saga has put Murphy and legislative Democrats into a political bind. Though he campaigned on marijuana legalization, the governor may now be forced to veto bills doing just that because he’s framed them as legalizing the drug for children.

Sweeney has previously said his chamber would not concur with a conditional veto, a stance he reiterated to the New Jersey Globe Thursday, but that’s he’d prefer the situation not devolve that far.

“We are trying to get to the finish line,” he said.

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