New Jersey Gov.-elect Phil Murphy said he would legalize marijuana within 100 days of taking office in January, and his Tuesday win makes a Democrat-packed statehouse the only obstacle.
Supporters feel confident it will happen, but legalization foes plan to campaign for Democratic defections as the other side debates different visions for reform.
Legalization in the state — across the river from both New York City and Philadelphia — would be significant geographically, but also because no state has passed legalization legislatively, despite Gallup putting national support at 64 percent.
Thus far, recreational marijuana legalization only has come through ballot measures, so far in eight states. The first retail shops opened in 2014 in Colorado and Washington.
Support for legalization doesn’t fall neatly along party lines, and it's possible some Democrats will join most Republicans to stall or even derail plans in New Jersey, as has happened in Vermont and New Hampshire.
But New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, told the Washington Examiner he feels confident that legalization will become law before April, with stores opening sometime in 2019.
“This is something Murphy supports and I support it and I don’t think anyone is going to go out of their way to embarrass the governor,” Sweeney said. “It’s a priority and it’s something we’re going to need to do.”
Sweeney said even if there are Democratic defections, “at least a couple” Republicans in the state Senate support legalization. He said he’s less familiar with the breakdown of support in the lower chamber, but that with Democrats in control he doubts the effort is in jeopardy.
Legislation already has taken form, drafted by Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari with Sweeney's backing. Controversially, the bill doesn’t allow home cultivation — permitted in seven of the eight legalization states and in Washington, D.C., where shops are blocked by Congress.
Amid likely debate about home cultivation, Kevin Sabet, leader of national anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he’s angling to thwart Murphy's ambition.
“We have been organizing for more than a year,” he said. “Soon, we will announce a new coalition of Republicans and Democrats opposing legalization. We intend to make this a major issue.”
Sabet said the group is investing money in New Jersey and that “we do have a high-profile Democrat in our coalition that was on the short list to be Murphy's lieutenant governor,” though he declined to identify that person or provide the names of opponents in the legislature.
Although significant opposition from Democrats is essential to stopping legalization, support among Republicans may also prove helpful to passing a bill.
One former Republican state legislator, Scott Rudder, is president of the pro-legalization New Jersey Cannabusinesss Association trade group. Rob Cressen, the former executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, is on the group’s board.
“I know plenty of other Republicans who are supportive of it,” said Rudder, whose group opposes home cultivation.
On the libertarian extreme, Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll has introduced a bill that would allow marijuana sales at convenience stores, and said he will urge far-reaching reform.
“Let’s get radical about this,” Carroll said, outlining a vision of legalization without product testing rules and without limits on home cultivation.
“If your kid at the age of 17 is smoking marijuana, that’s a good cause to give them a spanking, that’s not a good cause to call the police,” Carroll said.
Carroll hopes “other radicals out there” among Democrats will “threaten to withhold support for a bad bill,” but believes it’s likely a more cautious proposal will prevail. He said he’s likely to back any bill he views as a step in the right direction.
“My guess is any Democrat who stands to thwart Murphy in his first 100 days will have a very short career,” Carroll added. “They are serious about that: If you shaft the organization, that’s a very bad career move on the other side of the aisle.”
The Republican minority leader in the lower house, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, said “you have to call the Democrats” to ask if the bill will pass, and that he doesn’t know the level of support among his caucus. He said he supports decriminalizing pot and “seeing how that goes” before legalizing it.
Murphy's support is unusual among leading state politicians. Generally, legalization happens over the objection of governors. In Maine, lame-duck Republican Gov. Paul LePage has indefinitely blocked regulated sales, citing uncertainty about whether the Trump Justice Department will attempt to enforce federal law banning pot dealing.
Among those pushing for inclusion of a home-growing provision in New Jersey legislation is the Marijuana Policy Project, or MPP, a large national organization that supports legalization and has been influential in crafting state policies for recreational and medical marijuana.
MPP legislative counsel Kate Bell said, “We’ll see where things go when this becomes real,” expressing hope Democratic leaders will allow limited at-home growing.
Sweeney, the state Senate president, however, said he can't personally support a bill that allows home growing “unless someone could demonstrate to me why that’s necessary.” In fact, he described the omission as a potentially smart distinction for New Jersey.
“It’s hard to regulate an industry if everyone’s allowed to grow six plants,” he said. “This is the beauty of doing it legislatively.”