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Legal weed is dead for now, top N.J. Democrat says. Voters to decide instead in November 2020.



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Top state lawmakers are dropping efforts to pass a bill that would legalize marijuana in New Jersey, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced Wednesday morning.

Instead, they will ask voters in November 2020 to amend the state constitution to make weed legal.

In the meantime, lawmakers are moving forward with two related bills that would expand the Garden State's medical marijuana program and expunge the records of residents with past convictions of possessing up to five pounds of pot.

Sweeney and his fellow Democrats who lead the state Legislature spent months trying to gather enough votes to pass the bill that would make recreational marijuana legal for people 21

and older. But Sweeney said they simply could not secure enough support.

"There's no sense dragging this out," Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton. I'm disappointed. "

" We did our best, "he added." The votes just are not there. "

Sweeney said he expects voters to approve the ballot question next fall. New Jersey residents support legalizing marijuana.

NJ Advance Media was the first to report about Sweeney's plans Wednesday morning.

Of the 10 states that have already legalized pot, all but one – Vermont – has done so by asking voters. But Murphy and lawmakers say taking the legislative route would give them more flexibility to set up and change the laws regulating the new industry.

Lawmakers from both political parties, however, have been staunchly opposed. nd the hope for a new vote faded in recent weeks.

"I'm very disappointed," Sweeney said. "But people have very strong beliefs and feelings."

Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, has tied the recreational bill to the more popular medical and expungement bills in hopes of mustering more support for legalizing weed. 19659008] Murphy said he'd have "no choice" but to use an executive order to expand the state's medical pot program himself if a vote did not happen in May because more patients need help.

On Monday, Murphy's administration announced the state Health Department will next week have new legal authority to expand the supply and demand for medical cannabis in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties have made public pushes in recent days to move on the medical pot bill separately, saying it was being held hostage.

"It's time to pivot," state Sen. Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said at a news conference Tuesday.

But Sweeney partially blamed Murphy on Wednesday for causing a vote on the recreational bill to be scuttled. He said he asked the governor not to announce he would expand medical weed on his own if a May vote failed, fearing it would give lawmakers a reason not to vote for the recreational bill. But, Sweeney said, Murphy "did not listen."

"After governor announced medical expansion, it was pretty much over," said Sweeney, who is caught in an escalating feud with Murphy over tax incentives. "The urgency went away."

Murphy's office said the governor would address Sweeney's announcement at an unrelated news conference later in the day.

The expungement bill is part of efforts by Murphy and other top democrats to make sure social justice is improved by legalizing pot. Murphy often cites statistics showing residents of color are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites.

There's enough time to ask voters this November to approve a constitutional amendment legalizing weed But Sweeney said he's against that because Assembly seats top the ballot this year and will likely draw a low – and older – voter turnout.

Instead, the Senate president said it would be next November, when there 'sa a presidential election expected to draw a larger – and younger – turnout. ] Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Ass ociation, said his group i s "clearly disappointed that adult-use legalization has been put on the backburner."

But, Rudder, added "we are thankful that medical cannabis reform is moving forward and patients will finally have greater access and be able to participate in a more affordable program. "

NJ Advance Media st af writers Matt Arco Payton Giuon Susan K. Livio and Justin Zaremba contributed to this report. ] Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com . Follow him on Twitter @ johnsb01 .

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