When Phil Murphy was running for governor of New Jersey, he campaigned on a number of progressive platforms, most of which were a refreshing change of pace in New Jersey state politics. He's committed to raising the minimum wage to $15/hr (a plan that begins rolling out early next year), securing guaranteed sick leave for New Jersey workers, and reversing Chris Christie's 7.5 million dollar cut to Planned Parenthood. On top of all this, Murphy has also added New Jersey to a growing list of states aiming to legalize marijuana in 2018.
Unlike other politicians and advocates, Murphy isn't arguing for the legalization of marijuana on the basis of revenue. Murphy himself isn't a smoker, and has admitted that "as a father of four, it has taken him some time to come around to the idea of legal marijuana," but he now recognizes that the prohibition of marijuana use disproportionately affects minorities and young people. In his mind, legalization is a social justice issue. This isn't exactly a groundbreaking position, and legalizing marijuana won't fix racial biases in our criminal justice system, but it's certainly heartening to see a prominent politician earnestly trying to help his community, rather than looking at his governorship as a long list of business transactions.
For his part, Murphy is extremely confident that he'll be able to hit the January 2019 deadline he set for himself. In fact, he's included 60 million dollars in expected marijuana revenue in his first budget. The money would come from a 25% excise tax he plans to place on all weed sold at dispensaries. That said, while these moves definitely showcase Murphy's seriousness, they also betray a certain level of hubris. The bill was just released on June 8th and still has to pass in both the State Senate and the General Assembly. Currently, the Democrats hold a 25-15 majority in the Senate, as well as a 54-26 majority in the General Assembly, and at a glance, the outlook for the bill is promising. Legalization won't get much help from New Jersey Republicans, but with the Legislature split in the Democrats' favor, there's reason to be moderately hopeful.
Still, there are detractors, the most prominent being the Legislative Black Caucus, a group of 19 lawmakers (4 Senators and 15 Assemblymen, all democrats). The caucus is skeptical of the bill and is worried about the effect it could on the African American community, citing marijuana's status as a "gateway" drug. Another vocal opponent of the bill is Democratic Senator Joseph Vitale. Vitale's opposition to recreational pot smoking is particularly concerning, considering Senator Nicholas Scutari (the man introducing the bill to the New Jersey State Senate) expected Vitale to cosign his bill. The reason? Scutari attempted to combine two separate, largely unrelated bills, pitching both the expansion of medical marijuana and the legalization of recreational weed at the same time. This is a huge gamble. On the one hand, combining the two issues could force fencesitting Democrats to push the law through on the basis of allowing people access to the medicine they need. It's also possible that Scutari knew Vitale was against recreational marijuana use, and that Vitale's no vote, combined with the no votes of the four Senators on the Legislative Black Caucus, would effectively kill the bill before it got off the ground. On the other hand however, it's tough– even for recreational pot smokers– to justify Scutari's actions. He's essentially risking people's access to necessary medication in order to help Murphy make good on his (Murphy's) promise. If it works out, Scutari will look like a genius. If not, both medical marijuana expansion and the legalization of recreational pot could go up in smokes (no pun intended). Some members of the Legislature are applauding this move, assuming that to vote no on medical expansion is a form of political suicide, and other Senators have stepped up and volunteered to cosign the bill in Vitale's stead.
Senator Scutari talking weed at a press conference
Another concerning factor (Scutari has expressed this himself) is time. The New Jersey State Legislature's budget deadline is June 30th; this is also the when they typically leave for their summer recess. The window to pass this bill is closing fast, and Scutari's attempt to ramrod it through the Senate and General Assembly is sure to face a lot of opposition. That said, Democrats will hold a trifecta (the governorship, control of the State Senate, and control of the General Assembly) until November of 2019. The chance that Governor Murphy hits his January, 2019 deadline for legalizing recreational marijuana use is razor thin at this point, but there's a decent chance he can get it done next year, and even if he doesn't, recent polls conducted at Monmouth University suggest that nearly 60% of all New Jersey residents support full legalization. While it might not happen this year or the next, with such a weed friendly governor, the future is bright for the Garden State.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Popdust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff