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

Sweeney: Senate won’t concur with marijuana vetoes

‘We’re starting brand new’ if Murphy strikes weed bills, senate president says

By Nikita Biryukov, January 28 2021 4:20 pm

Update: Citing fluid negotiations, an administration official said they do not expect vetoes tomorrow as of Thursday evening.

The Senate will not concur with conditional vetoes Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to make on marijuana legalization and decriminalization bills Friday, Senate President Steve Sweeney told the New Jersey Globe Thursday afternoon.

“If the governor CVs the bills on his desk, we’re starting brand new. I will not concur with a CV,” Sweeney said. “I can’t make it any clearer than that, and I’ve made the administration understand that too.”

Though voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on marijuana legalization on Nov. 3, lawmakers in Trenton have hit a roadblock over penalties for underage use that has halted legalization efforts in their tracks for close to two months.

Murphy wants fines for underage users above the age of 18 and curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments — intervention methods meant to change behavior without criminal or civil penalties — for minors found in possession of marijuana. Politico New Jersey was first to report his Friday deadline.

The bills sent to Murphy’s desk don’t include such penalties. The legalization bill would make possessing marijuana purchased through the state’s legal market a disorderly persons offense, while the decriminalization bill lays out no sanctions for underage use.

The provisions the governor favored were in a cleanup bill that cleared committees earlier this month, but that measure died when its sponsors, State Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), pulled their support after objections from the Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses.

The groups’ members feared the provisions would increase police interactions with Black and Brown youth, potentially undercutting the bills’ social justice goals.

Since then, parties under the Golden Dome and in the front office have been unable to reach a deal as a procedural deadline that would make the bill law whether Murphy signs it or not looms closer and closer on the horizon.

Though negotiations have continued with some progress — both sides agree that marijuana odor should not be cause for searches, for example — Democrats are no closer to a deal now than they were a week ago.

“We think the governor should sign the bills, and then if there’s something we need to do, then we would do them,” Sweeney said, referring to further cleanup efforts.

The impasse could prove a problem for New Jersey’s finances as neighboring states gear up to legalize the drug. If states like New York act quickly enough, they could establish a legal market before New Jersey and siphon off tax revenue that would otherwise go to the Garden State.

It also puts residents arrested or convicted of marijuana offenses in a sort of legal limbo. Though voters backed legalization, marijuana remains illegal, and arrests have continued despite guidance from state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that directed prosecutors to halt cases solely involving a bevy of marijuana crimes.

While some of those offenses can be expunged under a separate law passed last year, marijuana is still illegal and will remain that way until lawmakers reach an agreement, meaning arrests are likely to continue.

The resistance to Murphy’s proposals has been led by lawmakers in the Legislative Black Caucus, who, along with chamber leaders, have been in talks with the front office since the cleanup bill died roughly seven weeks ago.

State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), a legalization opponent who chairs the caucus, on Wednesday told the New Jersey Globe he would never support a bill that included provisions on curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments.

While some in his caucus view those measures more favorably, there’s nothing to suggest they’ll revolt against their chairman, and negotiations may have created divisions between Democrats in the statehouse and the governor’s office.

“My caucus was very clear in their displeasure of saying there were drafting errors and mistakes. There weren’t. It was well thought out,” Sweeney said. “We don’t want to legalize marijuana for kids either.”

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