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Weekend sees little movement on marijuana

Senate still short on votes, with some black lawmakers insulted by name changes in last week’s cleanup bill

By Nikita Biryukov, February 01 2021 10:58 am

Democrats still negotiating over the fate of a new marijuana cleanup bill in Trenton face an ever-shortening runway to a procedural deadline that will see the bill vetoed or become law without the governor’s signature.

Little has changed in the math since Friday, when the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee advanced the new cleanup bill.

An assembly source told the New Jersey Globe there are still enough votes in that chamber to advance the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. Its fate remains murkier in the Senate, where Black and Latino lawmakers are entrenched against some penalties for underage users sought by the governor.

They’re still not at 21 votes in the upper chamber, a Senate source told the Globe. But negotiations continued over the weekend and will persist on Monday despite the day’s snows.

Some members of the Legislative Black Caucus were insulted by last week’s cleanup bill, though it was sponsored by one of their own, Assemblyman Benji Wimberly (D-Paterson). Wimberly and two other LBC members, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), the caucus’s vice chair, and Assemblyman Bill Spearman (D-Camden), backed the new cleanup bill in committee.

The measure closely resembled a previous effort that died in early January after objections from Black and Latino lawmakers.

It lowered fines for underage users between the ages to 18 and 20 — from up to $250 or not more than $500, depending on the quantity of marijuana, to $50 or $100 — and renamed intervention methods meant to stem use of the drug among minors.

The original cleanup bill called for “stationhouse adjustments” and “curbside warnings” to “point-of-violation warnings” and “juvenile interventions,” policies that, per the bill’s text, are identical in all but name.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus objected to those provision over fears they would enable more police interactions with Black and Brown youth, worrying it could enable a form of stop-and-frisk, an exceedingly controversial New York City law that was found unconstitutional after a judicial review found it disproportionately targeted non-White residents.

Some in the Legislative Black Caucus saw the new offer as an insult.

“The expectation is there needs to be more than just some name changes,” the Senate source said, adding they did not expect the perceived slight to derail negotiations.

Though talks are ongoing, the upper chamber intends to introduce a cleanup measure during Thursday’s quorum call. Leaders in the Senate are prepared to move the bill directly to second reading, circumventing the need for a committee hearing that could push the bill’s path past Feb. 8.

In New Jersey, bills that are not signed into law or vetoed 45 days after reaching the governor’s desk become law at the next quorum call of the chamber from which they originated. For the legalization and decriminalization bills already on Murphy’s desk, that deadline is Feb. 8, when the Assembly is set to hold its next quorum.

Neither chamber has a full session planned before then, but those schedules can change quickly.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) can schedule a new quorum at any time, a move that could push the deadline forward by days and upend negotiations that have carried on, in one form or another, since voters overwhelmingly approved marijuana legalization at the polls in early November.

But the Assembly source was unaware of any conversations to move forward the quorum. Coughlin, typically a measured lawmaker, has often steered clear of intra-party feuds between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and may not wish to rock the boat with his members up at the polls this year.

The front office, too, was unconcerned about such a maneuver from the speaker.

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