Legal weed for N.J. takes a huge step forward. We now expect final votes next week.

By Payton Guion | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

New Jersey on Monday took another big step toward legalizing recreational marijuana, as two state legislative committees approved a new weed bill, setting up historic votes in the full state Legislature next week.

The committees took hours to vote after lawmakers wrangled over last-minute changes to the measure behind closed doors at the Statehouse in Trenton.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill with a vote of 6-4, with one abstention, just after 8 p.m. The state Assembly Appropriations Committee approved it in a 6-2 vote, with two abstentions, about an hour earlier.

Lawmakers also approved a separate expungement bill and a medical marijuana expansion bill.

The full Senate and Assembly must now pass the measure before Gov. Phil Murphy — a major proponent of legal pot — can sign it. But the votes to secure legalization remain elusive.

As of Monday afternoon, leaders were still a handful of votes short of what’s needed. Murphy, who has been criticized in recent days for not doing enough to whip votes, ramped up his calls to lawmakers on Monday in an effort to swing some votes, two sources with knowledge of the situation told NJ Advance Media.

The Democratic governor made “dozens” of calls throughout the day, a senior administration official said.

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Monday’s action sets the stage for a flurry of other phone calls and discussions over the next seven days before the possible final vote, which is planned for March 25.

If the Senate and Assembly fall short that day, it’s possible another vote may not be attempted until late in the year.

The bill would legalize the possession and personal use of marijuana for people in New Jersey who are at least 21 years old, while also establishing a regulated industry. The measure would allow people with low-level marijuana convictions to have those charges cleared from their records, as well.

Marijuana supporters and opponents milled around the Statehouse all day Monday, awaiting an opportunity to testify on the bills. But they did not get the chance to speak before the Senate committee, which cancelled testimony from the public. The Assembly limited testimony to a few minutes per speaker.

During the Assembly committee hearing, Gregory Quinlan of the Center for Garden State Families said the bill is “wrong for the state” and that he was bothered by how Monday unfolded, with the backroom conversations and late amendments.

“How do I testify on a bill that’s on the amendments I haven’t seen?” Quinlan asked the panel. “That’s disrespectful to us.”

A handful of the most active cannabis supporters said they were generally happy with the updated legalization bill, which was revealed last week.

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said the bill was a decent compromise.

“I haven’t heard from anyone who’s really happy,” Rudder said. “But if someone walks away really happy, it’s not a good compromise.”

Despite the bills advancing, not everyone involved in the debate is happy about the language, especially the social justice provisions. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka called for more progressive expungement language while speaking to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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“The expungement process is cumbersome and not effective,” Baraka said. "It still penalizes individuals that have been convicted of marijuana charges. We should remedy all situations, and give people an opportunity to live their lives wholly and peacefully so that previous cannabis offenses do not deny them access to job opportunities that can help improve their quality of life.”

Legislative sources said Monday the Assembly was still a couple votes away from having enough to pass the legislation and the Senate still needs to swing at least three votes. Those numbers are fewer than they were last week, so it seems lawmakers are making progress.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee, the lines were drawn on partisan boundaries. All four Republicans in the committee voted against advancing the bill, including state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, who had been considered a getable vote. State Sen. Michael Doherty called the bill “a deal with the devil.”

If the measure can pass next Monday and the governor signs it, regulators would immediately get started on writing the rules of the industry, which would be expected to launch about a year after passage.

If the plan doesn’t pass next week, it could be a while before legalization is discussed again. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said this month that if legal weed doesn’t pass in March, it would likely get pushed until after the November election.

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