Here’s the introduction to the piece
With a bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey possibly coming within days, opponents are making a last-ditch push to derail one of the top priorities of Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders.
Opponents’ strategy is to push decriminalization as an alternative to creating a full legal market for anyone over 21 to buy marijuana, while leaning on lawmakers — particularly Democrats representing urban parts of New Jersey — with calls and emails from constituents.
Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin all favor full legalization over decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana without creating stores for adults to buy the drug and a system of taxing and regulating sales.
But the idea of decriminalization also has support in some quarters of the Legislature, including state Sens. Ronald Rice, a Newark Democrat who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, and Robert Singer, a Monmouth County Republican. Senate and Assembly bills to decriminalize marijuana have 10 sponsors in total, all Democrats except Singer, but have failed to get traction since they were introduced early this year.
If all six Democratic co-sponsors of the decriminalization bill in the Senate joined all 15 Republican senators in opposition, a legalization bill would fail. But a bill also could pick up some Republican support, and a couple of decriminalization advocates also could support full legalization.
Kevin Sabet, the leader of the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his group and others are making the case for decriminalization to address racial inequities in arrests for marijuana possession. Studies have shown that African-Americans account for a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests in New Jersey, even though whites and blacks use the drug at similar rates.
“We’re seeing the true colors of people who want unabashed legalization,” Sabet said. “They’re having a very hard time getting the votes, because they’re worried about local backlash. They should be. This is way too far, way too soon.”
Legalization proponents say a bill — which has yet to be formally introduced — is being held up not by fundamental disagreements over whether to allow marijuana sales, but by more technical questions about taxation and regulation.
But pro-weed advocates acknowledged that a bill may not pass by the end of September, which was Sweeney’s latest informal deadline. Legalization bills have missed two other informal deadlines: the end of Murphy’s first 100 days in office, in April, and the deadline for adopting a state budget, at the end of June.
“I think the adult-use sale of cannabis in New Jersey is inevitable,” said Robert DiPisa, a lawyer with Cole Schotz in Hackensack who represents marijuana clients. “The only question is when.”