by Jan Hefler
When New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced a 62-page bill and primer on how to legalize marijuana almost one year ago, he chuckled when asked if it had a prayer of passing.
The legal sale of recreational marijuana had not yet begun in any other East Coast state, and yes, Chris Christie, the Republican governor at the time, had threatened a veto.
The bill, Scutari insisted, would give lawmakers time to digest and debate the issue so that a palatable package would be “ready for the next governor.”
Gov. Murphy, a Democrat who promised on the campaign trail that he would give legal pot the green light, is now in his third month in office. But no legalization bill has landed on his desk. None has even made it to the floor for debate, despite a Democratic majority in the Legislature and pledges from party leaders that this would be a priority.
“Many lawmakers are still undecided,” Scutari, a Democrat from Union County, said last week. In January, he predicted legalization would be approved by the spring, possibly the summer at the latest. But now he says it might take a little longer.
“Politicians are not known as a courageous bunch, and it’s a topic people want to get comfortable with. … After 90 years of indoctrination that this is a bad substance, we have to turn people around, educate them,” said Scutari, a municipal prosecutor who two years ago led a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Colorado, the first state in the nation to legalize, to see for themselves how it was working.
Nine states and Washington, D.C., have approved recreational marijuana, and New Jersey was expected to be in the next wave, behind Massachusetts. But some New Jersey lawmakers are suggesting alternatives, and legal pot may not be a certainty after all, at least for now.
Last September, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59 percent of New Jersey residents supported legal pot, while a Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted in November pegged the number at 53 percent. Then, last month, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found support had dropped to 42 percent.
“We’re starting with a blank slate, looking at all the options,” Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, a Democrat, said last week as he convened the first hearing on legalization at the New Jersey statehouse this year.
Danielsen is “Switzerland, very neutral” on the topic, said Wayne Dibofsky, his chief of staff.
As the chairman of the obscure Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee, Danielsen invited more than two dozen speakers to testify for and against legalization during a five-hour, standing-room-only session.
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