New Jersey lawmakers face “razor thin” vote on recreational pot

New Jersey lawmakers are due to vote Monday on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana. If the measure passes both chambers of the State House, New Jersey would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia that have already legalized pot, and would become only the second (after Vermont) to change its laws through its state legislature rather than a through a ballot initiative.

But it’s unclear whether there will be enough votes to pass the measure today.

Since Colorado and Washington became the first to legalize weed in 2012, a growing number of states have followed. Now, New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, wants in, pushing a bill to legalize pot for people 21 and older, taxing it at $42 an ounce, and speeding up expungement of marijuana-related criminal records.

Marijuana arrests have risen faster in New Jersey than anywhere else, a situation Murphy calls “unacceptable.” A report by the American Civil Liberties Union also shows black New Jerseyans are “three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates.”

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“We’re digging out of decades of injustices here,” Murphy told correspondent Meg Oliver. “I believe folks deserve a second chance.”

Murphy calls the bill a “game-changer … to get the business out of the hands of the bad guys, to correct the social injustices, to regulate it and do it right.”

New Jersey’s six medical marijuana facilities are bracing for the bill to pass. “As soon as Governor Murphy took office, he asked us to expand our capacity,” said David Knowlton of the Compassionate Care Foundation, in Egg Harbor, N.J.

But leaders of at least 60 towns oppose the measure, pre-emptively banning marijuana within city limits. Cranbury Township, a town of 3,900 people, is among them.

“There is concern about what happens to the kids in the community,” said Mayor Jay Taylor.

He says legalizing weed for adults could expose more children to what he considers a gateway drug. “The idea that we legalize marijuana today, and that it’s just going to stop at marijuana and not lead to anything else, is a fallacy,” Taylor said.

The measure now faces strong opposition in the state legislature. “There is no question that legalizing marijuana will have a significant impact on our residents and on our culture,” said State Senator Gerald Cardinale.

Opponents point to reports of issues in other states that have legalized pot. There was an increase in traffic deaths in Colorado, and lower-than-expected tax revenues in Massachusetts.

The expected vote, Gov. Murphy said, is “very close. This is razor thin. And it’s gonna go right down, as they say, right down to the wire.”

Murphy says he’s been working the phones trying to get every possible vote. If the measure passes, marijuana could become available for recreational purchase here within six months.

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