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Senate President Steve Sweeney appears to have the votes for marijuana decriminalization.
Senate President Steve Sweeney

Sweeney: more work remains before Senate considers decriminalization

‘We’re not’ close to a deal, senate president says

By Nikita Biryukov, December 04 2019 2:25 pm

Senate President Steve Sweeney has the votes for marijuana decriminalization, but he’s not ready to move forward with the measure just yet.

“We don’t have a bill. I’ve told Senator Rice I’m happy to sit down and try to figure it out,” Sweeney said. “We still have to figure it out. We’re on board with doing something, so we just have to figure it out.”

Though he opposed marijuana legalization, State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) has long advocated for decriminalization.

According to a New Jersey Globe tally, nine senators, including Rice, who opposed legalization are backing or leaning towards backing decriminalization as a stop gap until a 2020 referendum on legal weed.

But while there’s enough support in both chambers for the short-term fix, legislative leaders and the governor have yet to reach an agreement on decriminalization.

“We’re not,” Sweeney said when asked how close he and other legislators were to a deal. “We have to sit down and talk pretty soon. I don’t think we’re miles apart. We just have to have those conversations.”

The senate president said there had been some talks with Gov. Phil Murphy’s office at the staff level, adding that meetings between decision makers would likely happen soon.

He’s hoping to decriminalize in lame duck, but it’s not yet clear if that will be possible.

“Hopefully lame duck,” Sweeney said when asked about a timeline. “I can’t until I have a bill, until we see what it looks like, and I’m going to consult with Sen. Scutari who’s been the lead guy on this issue.”

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari was the lead advocate for legalization in the legislature’s upper chamber.

Sweeney, Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have all expressed support for decriminalization, though much of that support was, at best, mild.

Murphy and others have previously criticized decriminalization as a policy, saying it would fortify black markets in New Jersey.

Some of the lawmakers now backing decriminalization are doing so with caveats.

State Sens. Declan O’Scanlon and Robert Singer, the only Republicans who have so far announced their support for decriminalization, said they won’t back the measure if it comes with large limits for possession similar to those in a decriminalization bill once tied to a package of marijuana bills.

That bill has languished in the legislature for months and seen no shortage of opposition from Republicans and some center-right Democrats over a five-pound limit for expungement eligibility.

Sweeney isn’t looking to end up at a similar impasse on decriminalization.

“We’ll figure something,” he said.

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