New Jersey Postpones State Senate Vote on Racially Just, Progressive Marijuana Legalization Bill

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Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, speaks to reporters in Trenton, NJ, Monday, March 25, 2019. New Jersey's Senate president says there are not enough votes to pass a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The vote in that chamber has been postponed. (Seth Wenig/AP)

New Jersey lawmakers decided on Monday to postpone their decision of whether to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, with the Senate President Stephen Sweeney feeling that there was not enough support to ensure its passage at this moment. He promised that legalization would be revisited, perhaps later in the year following the November elections. “This is not an issue that’s going away,” said Sweeney, shortly after the vote was called off. “Marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey one way or another.”

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Governor Phil Murphy has been a major proponent of marijuana’s legalization and brought it up as a priority for his term in office. New Jersey voters are largely in favor of legalization. Beyond keeping step with legalizations trends across the country, Gov. Murphy focused on the bill’s potential to rectify years of racial injustice. “We have the widest white-nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated in America and far and away the biggest contributor is low-end drug offenses,” Murphy said recently at a news conference, per the New York Times. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

The bill expunges the records of people who had been convicted of minor drug offenses in the state and also potentially liberates those currently serving their sentences for these offenses. It also includes measures that ensure that the state cannabis industry can be truly representative of the people, rather than being overrun by wealthy, white business owners.

Rev. Al Sharpton applauded these elements of the legislation and expressed his hope that it would inspire other states to do the same. “My concern had been that legal recreational marijuana has not dealt with the damage that has been disproportionately suffered by blacks and other people of color, and is just setting up people to make a lot of money,” Sharpton told the Times. “It would be a national model that we would bring around the country, including New York.”

New Jersey lawmakers who opposed the legalization bill suggested that it would harm the well-being of the very communities it purportedly will benefit, but several of these arguments have been based on outdated cannabis myths that show how out of touch some of New Jersey’s representatives are. For instance, marijuana use does not lead to the use of harder drugs. Additionally, it’s a bit specious to decry the supposedly detrimental effects of marijuana while allowing cigarettes and alcohol to remain legal.

“I am known as an outspoken proponent for legalization, a position that stems from the fact that I have been a marijuana user since my youth, when I discovered it was the only medicine that could relieve my crippling menstrual cramps without crippling the rest of my life,” wrote Whoopi Goldberg in an op-ed last week. She shared that she still uses marijuana medicinally. “For countless adults across New Jersey, myself included, marijuana has never been about getting high just for the sake of it…The unhinged and dire doomsday prophecies of some simply have not come to fruition elsewhere, nor will they in New Jersey.”