New Jersey

N.J. Senate Won't Vote on Legalization Bill That Would Expunge Convictions for Possessing 5 Pounds of Weed

The governor, legislative leaders, and most residents say New Jersey should legalize. Cops and baby boomer lawmakers stand in the way.


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

A planned vote that would have sent a marijuana legalization bill to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's desk has been postponed indefinitely, though state lawmakers say they still plan to pursue legalization in the future.

"The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another," vowed Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) at a press conference this week announcing the cancellation of a planned vote on the bill, which cleared the state House earlier this month. "Anybody who thinks this is dead, they're wrong."

That's good to hear, but the bill's defeat—even if only a temporary setback—is a disappointment. New Jersey's legalization effort seemed to have everything going its way: bipartisan support from leaders in the state House and Senate, along with a governor championing the effort and talking good sense about why ending the war on marijuana would be good for the state's residents and communities. On top of that, the bill itself was a model for other states to follow since it included a provision expunging the criminal records of anyone previously convicted of possessing up to 5 pounds of weed.

Yes, pounds. If passed, the bill would allow literally tens of thousands of people to have their criminal records wiped away, reported. In terms of righting the wrongs of the drug war, New Jersey's proposal went further than any other state has been willing to go.

It just won't happen yet, because not enough rank-and-file senators were convinced to support it. Politico reports that the state senate was between two and five votes short of the 21 necessary to pass the bill, citing sources familiar with the whip count. A whip count published by's state capitol reporters was more pessimistic, listing just nine senators in support of the bill and 24 opposed (with seven others listed as decided).

Those elected lawmakers in Trenton are woefully out of step with the people they represent. Polling shows that 60 percent of New Jersey residents support marijuana legalization—slightly higher than national averages, but trending in the same direction.

Opposition from law enforcement—including police chiefs spreading debunked statistics about how legal weed would worsen the opioid crisis—and baby boomer lawmakers might have been enough to tip the scales against legalization for now, but Sweeney is probably right that New Jersey's time will come. Pulling the bill for now may turn out to be a savvy move, giving Sweeney and Murphy more time to convince recalcitrant lawmakers to embrace the bold changes—rather than settling for a watered down version of the legislation.

"History is rarely made on the very first try," Murphy wrote on Twitter after the Senate vote was canceled. "But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down."