Assemblyman Craig J. Coughlin and Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney in 2018. Photo by Carmen Natale/ALM

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Modernization Act, including among its provisions expungement of past marijuana offenses to right what proponents call past social injustices, didn’t have the needed 21 votes for passage in the state Senate and was pulled from the scheduled board list of bills for the upper chamber’s Monday voting session. The Assembly followed suit and canceled its scheduled vote on the measure as well.

Quite simply, support wasn’t sufficient, and it was held for another day, another time.

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward.”

Sweeney ended his statement on an optimistic note.

“While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage,” he said. “The Senate was very close to 21 votes and, with more education and advocacy, I believe we will get this legislation across the finish line.”

Still, the outcome is considered a blow to Gov. Phil Murphy, who made legalization of recreational marijuana a key campaign promise, one he said he had every intention of delivering, especially to minority communities that the bill was intended to help.

The governor made a last-minute pitch last week at a press conference attended by more than a dozen community activists, faith leaders, and members of law enforcement to tout the bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 or older, bring about vast social reform, and make minorities, women and disabled veterans key players in the new industry.

“I’ve started to call people in Pennsylvania. I’m running out in New Jersey,” Murphy joked at the March 21 conference on how he had been working the phones to garner support for the bill.

At the news conference, Murphy alluded to the shortage of votes—about “five or six” in the Senate. “We’re not there yet,” he said more than once.

On Monday, the bill was said to still be three votes short for passage.

The marijuana bill, if enacted, would have made New Jersey only the second state after Colorado to establish regulations for marijuana use as an act of the legislature, and the 11th in the nation to approve adult, recreational use of marijuana that permits the cultivation and sale of cannabis.

Central to its social reform goals, the bill would establish an expedited expungement process for individuals convicted of low-level marijuana offenses, and a virtual expungement process that would automatically prevent certain marijuana offenses from being taken into account in areas such as education, housing, and occupational licensing.

Under the bill, adult-use marijuana would be subject to an excise tax of $42 per ounce, which would be imposed when marijuana is cultivated.

Municipalities that are home to a cultivator or manufacturer would receive the revenue from a 2 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction. Municipalities that are home to a wholesaler would receive the revenue from a 1 percent tax on the product within their jurisdiction.

A Trenton source who is close to the legislative process said that the bill was held, in part, because Sweeney would rather not have the marijuana bill drag out with lawmakers holding it hostage—or as bait—in the budget negotiations that have started. Sweeney had commented on the amount of horse trading that would take place if the marijuana bill and the new budget were both up for passage.

Holding the marijuana bill for another time, possibly for the lame-duck session after the November elections, where all 80 seats in the Assembly are up for grabs, seems more palatable, said the Trenton source, who asked not to be named because the source is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, shared Sweeney’s disappointment and commitment to ultimately getting the legislation passed.

“I’m disappointed that the Legislature was not able to secure sufficient support necessary to approve the adult-use cannabis, medicinal marijuana and expungement bills today, but this is still a historic day,” Coughlin said. “We moved closer to the goal than ever before.

“Today does not mark the end of the process and effort,” Coughlin added. “I remain committed to enacting the legislation.”