Legal weed is one step closer in New Jersey. Here’s what’s next

TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey is moving to make recreational marijuana sales and use legal for adults, a move that comes after years of debate and a lengthy effort to first legalize and then expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

A rare joint panel of lawmakers from the state Senate and Assembly approved a bill on Monday to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana.

Legislative committees also approved measures to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and overhaul the rules for expunging drug-related and other crimes.

The votes were a historic first for New Jersey. But the fight for those on both sides of the legalization debate is not over.

If the bills pass, New Jersey would be the latest state to legalize marijuana, and one of the only to do so by vote in the Legislature, not a ballot referendum.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, 10 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. In addition, 32 states and D.C. permit the use of medical marijuana, the group reports.

What happens now in New Jersey is that Democrats who control the state Legislature need to pass the bills related to legal weed in the Senate and Assembly, where it is not clear whether supporters have enough votes to make that happen.

Those legislative leaders then need to win over Gov. Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat who campaigned on legal weed but has remained decidedly non-committal to what the Legislature is doing. While lawmakers Monday were hearing from dozens of witnesses, Murphy stopped short of endorsing the legislation under consideration.

“I’m encouraged that it’s moving in the right direction, and it’s too early to tell as it relates to exactly the elements that ultimately are in there,” he said. “We’ll see, but I’m happy to see the progress.”

At stake is not only the fate of recreational marijuana for adults, but two other bills long-sought by those looking to help medical patients and ease the criminal penalties for using marijuana.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, long legal but severely limited under former Gov. Chris Christie, would be expanded by increasing the monthly medical marijuana cap to 3 ounces per patient from 2 ounces, allowing adults to purchase edible forms of cannabis and hiking the number of medical marijuana dispensaries, manufacturers and cultivators.

And people with criminal records would be able to erase a larger number of crimes, including drug-related ones, from their records as part of an overhaul of the state’s expungement rules.

What happened with legal weed?

Two committees met for a rare joint hearing Monday and considered testimony that lasted nearly four hours.

The votes were largely along party lines, with more Democrats in favor.

What’s next for legal weed?

To become law, the legal weed bill must receive 41 votes in the Assembly and 21 in the Senate. Then Murphy needs to sign it.

But when, or if that will happen, is not clear.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester, said in an interview Monday that he wouldn’t post the bill for a vote in the full Senate until it has Murphy’s support. The next possible votes by the full Senate and Assembly are in mid-December.

“Until we can come to an agreement, we can’t send a bill to him,” Sweeney said.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, a Democrat from Middlesex, for his part, issued a statement after Monday’s votes calling them an “important step forward.”

“We will continue working the bills towards passage to create a well-regulated and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in social and economic justice,” he said.

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