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New York & New Jersey Show U.S. How to Bungle Recreational Pot

New York & New Jersey Show U.S. How to Bungle Recreational Pot
PHOTO Jim Pennucci


New York & New Jersey Show U.S. How to Bungle Recreational Pot

Legislators in both states back out of plans to legalize marijuana for adult use.

While 2019 was supposed to be the year that broke the ethos of marijuana prohibition in such a way that the federal government would have no choice but to follow suit, that supposed mega-reform that cannabis advocates have predicted would transpire in several states since early last year has fallen short. And we’re being nice about it. In reality, lawmakers in New York and New Jersey, two states where it seemed almost inevitable for full-blown legalization to take hold, have found nearly every single, creative way imaginable to sabotage the concept of legalization. But what’s worse is, rather than really dig deep to work their way out of this mess — one created by arguing over shares of business involvement based on race and repairing the damage done on the criminal justice end — both jurisdictions have surrendered, at least for the time being, on legalizing marijuana in the same manner which has been achieved by 10 other states.

The truth is New Jersey should have legalized recreational marijuana a long time ago. Gov. Phil Murphy said during his campaign that he was going to make legalization one of his top priorities during his first 100 days in office. It was a move that Senate President Stephen Sweeney believed could be squared up by April of last year, allowing recreational sales to begin in 2019.

But lawmakers were never able to come to terms.

The Garden State’s marijuana legalization endeavors became more about social and criminal justice than anything else. There was also a colossal dispute over taxes between lawmakers and Murphy’s office. And then, just when it seemed that lawmakers were making some ground – BOOM – legal weed just hit a wall. Now, the final word on the matter is that Sweeney has given up on trying to get a marijuana legalization measure passed through legislative chambers. He has since decided that the best course of action at this point is to put it in front of the voters in the 2020 election.

That might be the state’s best shot.

Gov. Murphy, who worked with legislative controls for months to secure enough votes to get legal weed enacted, says giving the issue to the voting public has always been part of the backup plan. “The devil will be in the details,” Murphy told reporters last week following Sweeney’s announcement of the dead pot bill. “It’s hard to do it legislatively, I admit. It’s always been a default to go to a referendum and ask the people.”

As a consolation prize, of sorts, the New Jersey General Assembly is now working on expanding its medical marijuana program. Sweeney even told PBS News earlier this week that he is open to the possibility of decriminalization. Coincidentally, there was a bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Monday intended to do just that — it is designed to make the possession of two ounces of marijuana a $50 fine. Expungement of low-level pot possession records has also become a thing.

Essentially, state lawmakers are making a last-ditch effort to get some type of marijuana reform on the books to compensate for the complete clown shoe fumble it has made out of the push to legalize weed for adult use.

In New York, the attempts to legalize the leaf have been equally embarrassing. There was a lot of hope that it was going to happen last year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a longtime opponent of legalization, came out and said, “Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.” His plan on how to accomplish this task was to pass it through the state budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. But the issue just proved to be too complicated for legislative forces to hash out in a manner that appeased all sides. Similar to New Jersey, it didn’t take long for the issue to become all about correcting the wrongs of decades of prohibition and giving minorities a fair shot at participating in the cannabis trade. Only everyone involved had a different idea of what that was supposed to look like. Then came trouble with respect to the distribution of pot taxes.

It was one problem right after another. By March, Gov. Cuomo was at his wit’s end with the plan to legalize weed through a budget deal. “I am no longer confident marijuana will be done by the budget,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “There is a wide divide on marijuana. I believe ultimately we can get there. I believe we must get there. I don’t believe we get there in two weeks.”

Fast forward to present day and Cuomo has gone from frustrated to throwing in the towel on the idea of getting marijuana legislation passed anytime soon. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be enough support for marijuana legalization in either chamber to make it happen. This has Cuomo feeling like legal weed is pretty much a dead issue in 2019. “When the legislature starts to say, ‘We need the governor to get us votes,’ that’s legislative code for ‘We don’t have the votes,’”Cuomo said during a recent press conference.

While a new bill has been prepared intending to legalize marijuana in New York for recreational use, there is not a lot of optimism surrounding its potential success. Not before lawmakers call it quits for summer recess on June 19. Some lawmakers feel like there is a chance the bill will find some traction, but Cuomo isn’t at all confident. “They don’t have the political support and that’s a problem,” he said.

Cannabis advocates say all of this failure concerning marijuana in the state legislature is just par for the cannabis course. They say maybe, just maybe members of the movement expected too much from 2019.

“In the grand scheme of things, our reform movement is just beginning to crest after all these years of prohibition,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for the marijuana advocacy group NORML, told Politico. “It comes down to managing expectations and thinking realistically. … It’s not realistic to expect that five state legislatures are going to approve legalization bills in a single year.”

Okay, sure, but how about just one?

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