NJ Politics Digest: Sweeney Says Not So Fast on Decriminalizing Pot

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

He wanted to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use, but Senate President Steve Sweeney isn’t so keen on simply decriminalizing it.

The Record reports that Sweeney told a Gannett editorial board that he thought the decriminalization plan was “problematic” since it leaves the sale of marijuana to the black market while merely reducing the penalty. Sweeney said he’d like to have the state attorney general deal with penalties, rather than having legislation address it, according to the report.

Decriminalizing marijuana could also spell problems for Sweeney’s plan to put the legalization question to voters in a 2020 referendum. Sweeney decided to go the referendum route after the legalization effort failed to win enough support from state lawmakers. With marijuana decriminalized, legalization efforts might not receive the same level of public support as it would if there was a question about whether or not the attorney general’s guidance on penalties could be changed with a new administration.

Decriminalization means the cash-starved state also would not be able to reap the tax benefits—pegged by some at $300 million annually—that would come with legalization. Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget called for $80 million in marijuana tax revenue before legalization efforts collapsed.

With legalization stalled, the state legislature is moving ahead with efforts to expand access to medical marijuana and to provide for expungement of marijuana convictions. Some see decriminalization as essential to that effort, since decriminalizing pot offenses would also reduce the need for future expungement actions.

Quote of the Day: “I’m open to conversation, but I’m not there right now,” — Senate President Steve Sweeney, voicing his concerns about a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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