Despite months of infighting and stalled negotiations, New Jersey's top lawmaker said Thursday the state Legislature could vote to legalize marijuana in the Garden State as early as next month.
"I think it's gonna be soon," state Senate President Stephen Sweeney told NJ Advance Media when asked if it's possible the state will legalize recreational pot use by the end of the year. "We'll have the legislation done. Then you have to do the regulations and everything else."
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told reporters earlier in the day that he and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, "spent a lot of time" over the last week speaking with sponsors of the legislation.
Sweeney said they hope to have a final draft next week, hold hearings after that, and have the Legislature vote in September.
"We're getting much closer," Sweeney told reporters after an unrelated news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton.
The bill needs to pass both houses of the Democrat-controlled state Legislature -- the Senate and Assembly -- and then be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, to become law.
After that, the state would still need to establish regulations. It's unclear how long that would take.
Murphy is an ardent supporter of legal marijuana, making it a key plank of his platform. He called on lawmakers to have a bill passed by Jan. 1.
Disagreements have delayed the momentum for months, though.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Sweeney introduced legislation in the spring, merging a bill to expand the state's medical marijuana program with the recreational weed bill.
But it fell flat after pushback from the governor's office, the cannabis business community, and state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, one of the prime sponsors of the medical marijuana expansion effort.
Legalization remains a polarizing issue, and few lawmakers are willing to say where they stand on it. Tying the medicinal marijuana expansion bill to the legalization measure angered some.
A hearing on separate bills was scheduled then cancelled last month, as senators and Assembly members were still deciding what both bills should say.
Sweeney said Thursday the medical marijuana and legal marijuana measures will be separate in the end.
Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said Thursday the governor "remains committed to legalizing adult-use marijuana, a critical step in eliminating racial disparities in our criminal justice system."
"The governor is committed to working with the Legislature to legalize adult-use marijuana the right way, one that makes the state fairer, prioritizes the safety of New Jersey residents, and ensures that some of the economic benefits go the communities hardest hit by the war on drugs," Alfaro added.
Coughlin, the state's second-highest ranking lawmaker, was long cautious about legal pot. But last week, he gave a full endorsement.
"For folks who don't want to legalize it, I understand their view," Coughlin said during his radio show on WCTC 1450-AM. "But I would ask: Are we satisfied with the status quo?"
"I mean, use of marijuana is still a constant," he added. "Three out of five drug arrests are for marijuana. African Americans are three times more likely to get arrested. So, in trying to address those things, I think if we get the right bill we'll go ahead and try and pass it."
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