It’s been said that lame duck legislative sessions are where good ideas go to die and bad ideas go to become law.
With the announcement from Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, that another attempt will be made before years’ end to legalize possession of marijuana for personal use, one half of that observation will be validated.
Supporters of legalization have been frustrated at the failure to round up majorities despite what they argue is overwhelming public support to remove criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The issue has been somewhat dormant since March when legalization legislation was scheduled for consideration in the Senate but removed when a head count revealed it would fall a few votes short of approval.
In announcing his intention to renew the effort, Sweeney pegged the odds of approval at 50-50, noting that there were 19 committed votes in favor in March but he and other supporters were unable to budge the holdouts.
Whether the intervening eight months produced any reconsideration on the part of opponents doesn’t seem likely.
The objections raised remain and will be difficult to dislodge. Those who believe government should not sanction any drug use have been joined in opposition by others who object to various provisions including oversight, licensing, location of sales outlets, tax rate and distribution of the revenue.
Efforts to redraw the legislation to address some concerns were stymied when the proposed changes produced objections from others. Satisfying the demands of one group led inevitably to issues on the part of other factions.
Powerful opposition was voiced by members of the clergy who characterized legalization as a tool to enrich investors at the expense of minorities, harming urban communities who, they said, have already suffered greatly from the scourge of drug abuse.
Newark Sen. Ron Rice, the leader of opposition forces in the Senate, shares the view that outside investors will reap a windfall and has predicted that recreational marijuana will devastate the quality of life in urban communities and inflict grievous damage on the health and welfare of young people in particular.
Both sides will, of course, present dueling studies purporting to demonstrate that marijuana use does or doesn’t contribute to traffic deaths, that brain function is or isn’t impaired, that long term use will or will not inflict cognitive harm.
There will also be tales — apocryphal or not — of individuals wandering around downtown neighborhoods in a zombie-like trance, presenting a danger to themselves and others.
The greater impact on the outcome, though, will involve money — how much and who benefits.
Several urban mayors have made a compelling case their cities should receive a larger cut of the tax revenue since it has been their cities that have suffered more than others from the decades-long war on drugs.
They’ve also demanded a greater voice in the issuance of licenses to sell marijuana and in approving locations for commercial outlets.
It’s highly unlikely their demands will soften to any significant degree and will continue to pose a difficult challenge to legislative supporters.
While Sweeney has portrayed himself as open to discussing a decriminalization bill should legalization fail again, the preferred fallback position seems to be an up or down referendum on the 2020 ballot.
Odds are better than even the proposal would win approval, helped along significantly by the increased turnout in a presidential election year.
While a successful referendum would arm Sweeney with solid proof of public support rather than anecdotal evidence or a poll sample, the issues which have thwarted legislative approval this far would remain unresolved.
Implementation of a successful ballot question would still be a legislative responsibility and, while an expression of public support would be helpful, the questions raised during the debate this far must be resolved.
It’s been more than two years since Gov. Phil Murphy — then candidate Murphy — pledged legal recreational marijuana would become a reality in his first 100 days.
A miscalculation or typical campaign hyperbole it may have been, but it’s also been an embarrassment to him.
Sweeney has described the legalization effort as the most difficult issue he’s dealt with but remains warily optimistic that legislators in a lame duck session, free from the pressures and conditions of campaigning, will respond more favorably.
The lame duck will limp along and, depending on one’s view, will carry a good idea to its death or a bad idea into law.
Carl Golden, of Burlington Township, is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.