Legalization of recreational marijuana has proven more difficult for the new administration than expected.  A proposed bill, Senate Bill 2703 – and its companion, Assembly Bill 4497 – which would legalize the possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for people at least 21 years old was enthusiastically supported by Governor Phil Murphy and endorsed by leaders of the Democratic-controlled state legislature. The legislation would have made New Jersey only the second state, other than Vermont, to legalize adult-use marijuana entirely through the legislative process.

The proposed legislation called for several types of cannabis establishments, including retailers, wholesale distributors, growers and cultivators, processors, and manufacturers.  The bill also provided for an excise tax of $42 per ounce, and left municipalities the option to levy their own tax rates on marijuana. Adult-use marijuana would have been governed by a five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission.  Three members would have been appointed by the governor, with the governor’s initial appointments to serve terms of at least four years and not be subject to Senate confirmation.  Two other members would have been appointed by the governor, upon the recommendations of the Speaker and Senate President.  The Commission would have promulgated all regulations governing the state’s industry and would have overseen the applications for licensing of adult-use marijuana businesses, among other things. The proposed bill also set forth an expungement process for convictions of low-level distribution and possession.  Additionally, there were a number of provisions that aimed to ensure broad-based participation in the industry for minority and women-owned business enterprises, low- and middle-income individuals and disadvantaged communities across the state.

Nevertheless, on March 25, 2019, a vote on the proposed bill was cancelled when it became clear that, although it had enough votes to pass in the Assembly, the measure would not have enough votes to pass in the state Senate. Murphy and legislative leaders were reportedly a few votes short in the Senate.  In response, Governor Murphy announced that he is giving the state legislature until “the edge” of May to pass a pair of linked bills—one that would legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey, and another that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program (the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act). Otherwise, he stated that he will again expand the medicinal marijuana on his own by executive action—a move that could quadruple the size of the state’s current medical marijuana program to serve as many as 200,000 patients.

Governor Murphy has agreed to hold off until May, in part because some lawmakers have expressed concern that they would lose leverage in garnering the required votes to legalize marijuana if medical marijuana would be expanded regardless. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said that if the bill failed to gain support now, the legislation could be reintroduced after the November state legislature elections or in the form of a public referendum.  Murphy, however, remains optimistic that both bills will pass legislatively.

Before the May deadline, the legislation could undergo wholesale changes to gain approval of senators who are on the fence.  In the meantime, the continued expansion of New Jersey’s medicinal marijuana program is quickly approaching, whether through legislation or administrative action.