New Jersey will ask voters to legalize recreational pot

A measure to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey fizzled out Wednesday when the state Senate president said he would instead look to voters next year and will pursue separate bills to expand medical cannabis and wipe clean some criminal records.

Democrat Steve Sweeney vowed that adult-use marijuana — supported by fellow Democrats Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — would become legal, just not now.

This is the latest development as New Jersey sought to become the 11th state to legalize recreational weed since a vote on the measure was postponed in March . Sweeney said at the time that the bill didn't have enough votes to pass.

Murphy campaigned on recreational cannabis legalization and pushed hard for the bill. He has said he would consider a referendum but didn't want to abandon legislation.

Speaking at an unrelated news conference Wednesday, Murphy said he had a "mixed reaction" to the announcement but that he was in favor of pushing ahead with medical pot expansion and criminal records expungement.

"It's hard to do it legislatively, I admit," he said about adult-use legalization. "One state in the history of our country has done it and that's Vermont, and we're a lot more complicated than Vermont. It's always been a default to go to a referendum and ask the people."

To get on the ballot, three-fifths of lawmakers must approve the proposed question, or a simple majority of lawmakers must approve it in two consecutive years. It's unclear how the amendment would be worded and which path would be pursued.

Sweeney says he intends to move forward with an expansion of medical marijuana and legislation to expunge criminal records of those convicted on marijuana-related charges. He said that stemmed from a desire to transform the medical marijuana program and "achieve the progressive reforms for social justice."

"It would have been best to move the adult use and medical expansion bills at the same time, but it is wrong to hold the medical and expungements bills hostage," he said.

Coughlin said in a statement he supports Sweeney's plan to expand access to medical marijuana. He said he was pleased with Sweeney's proposal to expunge criminal records as well. He did not address whether he backs a referendum.

Sweeney said the medical marijuana expansion would include increasing the number of dispensaries, which currently stands at six but is in the process of doubling, expanding the number of professionals who can authorize its use and phasing out the state's sales tax on medical pot.

He said a second measure aimed at wiping certain convicts' records clean would allow for the expungement of controlled dangerous substance convictions of the third or fourth degree.

Among the stumbling blocks to the bill that stalled out in March were that the measure would allow a fast track to expunge marijuana-related convictions for many people. Others worried that black communities in New Jersey could miss out on economic opportunities in a legal weed market. Others raised philosophical concerns with legalization.

New Jersey's bill sought a tax of $42 per ounce, setting up a five-member regulator commission and expediting expungements to people with marijuana-related offenses.

The bill would have permitted towns hosting retailers, growers, wholesalers and processors levy taxes as well, up to 3 percent in some cases.

Tax revenue would have gone into a fund for "development, regulations and enforcement of cannabis activities," including paying for expungement costs.

The measure also called for an investigation on the influence of cannabis on driving and for funding drug-recognition experts for law enforcement.

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