TRENTON, N.J. (CBS/AP) — Days ahead of a planned vote in the Legislature that would make New Jersey the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that the measure is short of the votes needed to pass. The Democrat spoke Thursday during a news conference alongside more than a dozen supporters of the bill, including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and said he and legislative leaders are “making progress, but we have a ways to go.”
“It’s Monday or never as Elvis Presley used to say,” Murphy told reporters when he was asked what if the bill doesn’t pass.
Murphy and fellow Democrats, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney, support the measure, which would legalize recreational cannabis for people 21 and over.
But lawmakers have expressed reluctance, and the vote’s outcome Monday is uncertain. Forty-one votes are needed in the Assembly and 21 in the Senate.
“We are close, we’re not there yet, we’re making progress but we have a ways to go,” said Murphy.
Murphy’s push Thursday comes after the bills advanced Monday in Assembly and Senate committees more than a year after Murphy took office on a promise that he would legalize recreational weed. New Jersey is already one of more than couple of dozen states that has legalized medical marijuana.
The bill would bring in an estimated $60 million initially in new tax revenues, which has led to criticism that Murphy wants to legalize the drug as a tax grab.
But Murphy on Thursday rebutted those attacks and cast the bill as unmistakably tied to relieving racial injustice, citing a higher rate of marijuana-related arrests among black people.
He also aimed at lawmakers who worry about the exposure of marijuana to young people.
“Our kids are exposed with no regulations. The bad guys run the business. That’s the status quo,” he said. “The status quo is the alternative.”
Murphy enlisted the help of leaders from about a dozen civil rights and faith groups to appeal to lawmakers still on the fence. Among them was Pastor Steffie Bartley from New Hope Memorial Baptist Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who experienced first-hand the lasting impact of a marijuana charge.
“There were times I made some terrible mistakes as possessing marijuana and as I tried to get my life together and I went to apply for a job and I was turned down because of that being on my record,” explained Bartley.
While many minority advocates point out the disparity between how frequently blacks are arrested compared to whites over marijuana, there are some black lawmakers who don’t see making pot available in stores as really changing that injustice.
“So we’re promising black and brown people fictitious things that we want to do that’s not going to take place,” said Democratic state Sen. Ron Rice.
While supporting expungement, several state Democrats have publicly joined Republicans in opposing legalization, which state Sen. Mike Doherty calls a “deal with the devil that sacrifices children.”
Opponents believe New Jerseyans will regret allowing commercialized pot into their communities.
“Starting with children, starting with DUIs, accidents, deaths — the list goes on and on. There’s really nothing good about this bill,” said Stephen Reid, of the New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy.
The 176-page measure imposes a $42 per ounce tax, sets up a regulatory commission and expedites marijuana-related expungements.
The measure aims to incentivize women and minorities to participate in the legal marijuana market by requiring 30 percent of licenses go to them, and it calls for an investigation on the influence of cannabis on driving and for funding drug-recognition experts for law enforcement.
If the recreational marijuana bill does not pass on Monday, many believe it will not be brought up over the summer during budget debates and we may not see the bill again until the fall.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)