Home>Governor>Some Republicans could support marijuana cleanup, but increased liability for police an obstacle

State Sen. Steve Oroho. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Some Republicans could support marijuana cleanup, but increased liability for police an obstacle

Senate Democrats polling GOP support in last-minute effort to reach 21 votes

By Nikita Biryukov, February 18 2021 5:08 pm

Democratic leadership in the Senate has made overtures to the chamber’s Republican members on a marijuana cleanup bill that would establish penalties for underage use, and at least some GOP lawmakers are may be willing to support the proposal, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

“It is possible that I would be willing to vote for a well-constructed cleanup bill that builds in deterrents for underage cannabis use,” said State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver). “Especially when we are legalizing recreational use, we should be sending the message that, ‘Hey, kids, your developing brain, this is not healthy for you. This is not something you should be partaking in.’”

Senate Democrats on Thursday resurrected their effort to pass a cleanup bill creating penalties for underage marijuana use just one day after talks appeared to be abandoned.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on Thursday cancelled a Friday voting session that would have seen legalization and decriminalization bills already on the governor’s desk made law without his signature, pushing the procedural deadline until Monday, when the Assembly will hold its next quorum.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has stepped into the fray to whip votes on the bill, and Senate Republicans have received inquiries from the chamber’s majority office over how they planned to vote on the cleanup bill, State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin) told the New Jersey Globe.

That outreach follows informal conversations within the GOP caucus about the need for Republican input on slow-moving and contentious negotiations on the opposite side of the aisle.

“Members of our caucus have talked about it, not in a caucus scheduled meeting or something like this, but some of our members have looked at it and said ‘in the situation that we’re in right now, there needs to be an alternative,’” Oroho said.

The push to legalize recreational marijuana use following its overwhelming victory at the polls in November has been stuck for two months as Gov. Phil Murphy and Democrats in the upper chamber jockey over penalties for underage use.

The most recent cleanup bill would create a system of graduated warnings for minors in possession of marijuana. Its penalties begin with a written warning and escalate to a written warning and parent contact on the second offense. On the third, underage users are referred to community-based groups.

Previous versions would have levied a fine of up to $50 or community service on minors on a third offense. Users aged 18, 19 and 20 are subject to the fine on their first transgression.

Oroho and O’Scanlon appeared to favor those penalties, with the latter wishing for sanctions that would “deter but not destroy their lives and have them thrust into system.”

But a separate amendment that would increase criminal liability for police officers who illegally search minors by removing a requirement that an officer’s actions were meant to intimidate or discriminate against an individual on the basis of their protected class.

The front office opposes that provision, but a senior administration official indicated it would not stop Murphy from signing the bill. However, it’ll likely cost Republican support.

Oroho told the New Jersey Globe he “would be completely against” making it easier to criminally charge police officers.

“You start charging and going after police officers and stuff like that and the issue of underage, those kinds of things, then I have a concern about it,” he said.

News of Republicans’ openness comes as Senate Democrats are embroiled in a furious effort to secure 21 votes in the cleanup bill’s favor. A21, the legalization bill on Murphy’s desk, cleared the upper chamber in a 23-17 vote.

No GOP senators voted in its favor, but Democrats have since been unable to reach agreement between the front office and the Senate’s Black and Latina lawmakers on a cleanup bill.

The latter group is likely to withdraw support absent increased liability for officers, and Republicans are unlikely to support a bill that includes those provisions.

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