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Legal weed in N.J. could be at risk for now due to recent moves in Trenton

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By Payton Guion and Claude Brodesser-Akner

A bold plan to tie medical marijuana expansion to the legalization of recreational weed could jeopardize both efforts in New Jersey, legislators say.

Multiple sources in the Legislature have told NJ Advance Media that state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, is working on combining the two measures in a political gamble that risks dooming their chances of passage before the Legislature takes its summer break at the end of June.

"That would be brilliant, because medical expansion has to happen," said one lawmaker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations. The legislator added that it could slow both medical and recreational plans.

State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, on Tuesday told NJ Advance Media that there have been discussions about combining the medical marijuana plan, which has broad support, with the much more contentious legal weed bill. Two other sources in the Legislature confirmed such discussions.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a major expansion of New Jersey's medical marijuana program earlier this year. Several health conditions were added to the program and enrollment has gone from around 16,000 to more than 21,000 since Murphy took office.

While the governor has been able to take steps to grow the program, he's also looked to the Legislature to codify some of the more ambitious changes, like allowing the state to issue licenses for new businesses to join the state's market.

Earlier this month, Health Committee chairman state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, introduced legislation to significantly increase access to the medical marijuana program by allowing more dispensaries and cultivation centers to open and permitting more medical professionals to refer their patients.

Vitale on Wednesday said he was staunchly opposed to consolidating his bill with one legalizing recreational cannabis for adult use.

"They should absolutely not be mixing medical marijuana (legislation) with recreational," Vitale said. "Let the chips fall where they may on recreational (cannabis)."

Vitale and Scutari are scheduled to confer today to resolve their differences.

Scutari did not return text messages seeking comment, and neither the senator nor his staff have returned multiple calls this week. He'd previously said he wasn't planning to merge the bills, though he did say he wanted them considered together. That appears to have changed.

Earlier this month Scutari told NJ Advance Media that he was planning on introducing his legal weed bill by the end of May. That timeline now seems unlikely.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, declined to comment on a combined bill, but said he's "hopeful to get recreational and medical marijuana done before the end of June."

The Legislature traditionally takes takes its summer break at the end of June, which is the state budget deadline, and lawmakers often tackle tough issues before then. If no bill gets passed, the plan could have to wait a while to be reconsidered. Democratic leaders in the Senate are expected to meet on Thursday, with a full caucus planned for June 7.

It's unclear just when New Jerseyans could begin buying marijuana for adult use if a bill is passed, but Murphy clearly hopes it will be soon: He felt confident enough to project some $60 million in recreational marijuana tax revenue in the 2019 fiscal year budget that begins July 1.

Murphy didn't comment specifically on the merged bills, but said he's hopeful a deal can be reached.

"Gov. Murphy is looking forward to continuing talks with the Legislature on efforts to expand access to medical marijuana and legalize adult-use marijuana," said Murphy's spokesman Daniel Bryan. "Although these negotiations have been complex and time-consuming, the governor hopes to reach an agreement on both efforts in the near future."

Original publication in NJ.com