New Jersey Senator Nicholas Scutari is on a mission to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey - even if it means taking on Governor Chris Christie, a fierce opponent of legalization who has the power to veto bills passed in the senate.
On Nov. 16, the New Jersey Senate, chaired by Scutari, began hearings to determine if the state should legalize cannabis.
"A journey of a thousand steps starts with the first," the Democratic Party senator told NJ.com. "The first step was introducing the bill and this is the natural next step — to talk about the benefits of legalization and the negative impact prohibition has had."
On the first day, the committee heard from attorneys, activists and religious leaders who support legalization. Testimony from opponents will be heard later, but the biggest opposition will come from within the state house.
New Jersey senator Nicholas Scutari is leading the charge on legalization in the New Jersey state senate.
Governor Chris Christie staunchly opposes recreational marijuana use. Although he supports medicinal cannabis, which New Jersey legalized in 2010, Christie has vowed to veto any attempt to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. He's also pledged to enforce federal prohibition laws against legal states if he becomes president.
That roadblock has some of Scutari's Democratic Party colleagues hedging their bets on the bill.
"Look, this governor won't sign it. He's already said that," Senate President Steve Sweeney told CBS. "But we're hoping that if it's a good deal for New Jersey, the next one will."
Christie's second term ends in 2017, and he can't run for office in the state's next gubernatorial election.
But others are pressing for a vote sooner than later. Bill Caruso - a local attorney and member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform who testified at the hearing - is pressing for a confrontation with Christie.
"We have good support from leadership, good support from a broad cross-section of Democrats and, by the way, good support from some Republicans on this," Caruso told Philly.com. "So I'm not writing off until the next governor is in office for this. I think we start now. I say we try and see where the chips fall."
Democrats need Republicans to veto Christie
Having a legislative showdown with the governor would be daunting, but it isn't an insurmountable challenge. On Oct. 22, the Senate voted to overturn Christie's veto of a gun-control bill. However, that success was preceded by 52 failed attempts to override the governor's decision. So there's reason to temper expectations.
Currently, the Democrats dominate the General Assembly 48-32 and the Senate 24-16. However, to overturn a veto, at least two-thirds of the members in each house have to vote in favor. That means Scutari would need help from at least six Republican representatives and three senators in order to override Christie's cannabis veto.
But in January 2017, the new legislative term will see the Democrats take a 52-28 majority in the Assembly, reducing the number of republicans needed to override the veto to two.
The benefits of legalization might entice Republican legislators. A 2012 Star-Ledger Report found that enforcing laws against cannabis possession cost New Jersey taxpayers more than $127-million each year.
Poll shows public support for legalization
In contrast, legalization could create a billion-dollar industry in the state. And while helping the state balance the books, cannabis could also win votes: a poll conducted in June 2015 by Rutgers-Eagleton found that 58 percent of respondents favored legalizing, regulating, and taxing cannabis in New Jersey.
The question for Scutari is whether to continue the uphill battle against Christie, or hope his successor is more progressive toward cannabis.
And that is a possibility. Sweeney, the current senate president who may run for governor, is open to legalization, as long as it's working well in states that already have legal markets.
"I am receptive to the proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana in New Jersey," he said. "But I believe we should learn more about how this is working in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska before making any final decisions. We can learn from their experience, including any impact on public health or public safety."