In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, New Jersey’s top state lawmaker advised that he was dropping all efforts to have the Legislature pass a bill that would have legalized adult use marijuana in New Jersey, and will instead focus on expanding the state’s medical marijuana program and on expunging criminal records for those convicted of marijuana crimes.

New Jersey would have been the eleventh state to legalize adult use marijuana.

Instead, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) advised that lawmakers will have state voters decide whether to legalize marijuana through a statewide referendum on the ballot in November 2020, when there is a presidential election with an expected larger and younger turnout. To get the question on the ballot, either three fifths of lawmakers must approve it or a simple majority of lawmakers must approve it in two consecutive years. No referendum question has yet been proposed.

Sweeney has stated that he expects voters to approve the referendum since polls show that a majority of New Jersey residents support the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Interim Moves Sweeney added that in the meantime lawmakers will proceed with two related bills. The first will diversify the state’s marijuana program by increasing the number of cannabis patients who can obtain prescriptions and multiply the number of medical professionals who can write prescriptions. The second bill will expunge nonviolent criminal records for marijuana-related offenses 10 years from the date of release or completion of probation.

On May 15, 2019, Sweeney tweeted that “We will move forward with the expansion of our medical cannabis program as well as the progressive social justice reforms in the expungement legislation. We will not, however, pursue the legalization of adult use marijuana at this time.”

State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) agreed with the decision to move forward with the medical and expungement bills, which will increase access to medical marijuana. Coughlin professed that the expungement bill will “give thousands of New Jerseyans the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate making it easier to gain employment, buy a home or get a loan.”

Although Governor Phil Murphy and fellow Democrats spent months trying to gather enough votes to pass the bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 years and older, they were unable to obtain enough support from the Senate.

Legalization by legislation is still an option in New Jersey, but for now the adult use of legalized recreational marijuana has been put on the back burner, and most likely will be decided by the people of New Jersey directly.