New Jersey lawmakers on Dec. 16 approved a resolution that will put the question of cannabis legalization before the state voters in November 2020.
The measure passed the state’s Senate by a vote of 24-16, while the Assembly voted 49-24 with one abstention. This provides the “supermajority” needed for putting changes to the state constitution on the ballot.
With wry sarcasm, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a sponsor of the measure and a Democrat, told NJ.com: “People actually smoke marijuana every day. Can you believe it?” He added that people don’t understand why legalization is important until “your relative gets arrested over this substance that is widely used in this state and country.”
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy made legalization a key campaign promise in his 2017 run. But the effort has seen incessant obstacles in the statehouse, as lawmakers have been distracted with wrangling over the state budget. This June, instead of moving forward with a long-languishing legalization measure — aimed in part at raising money for the financially strapped state — lawmakers just barely managed to pass a compromise state budget, narrowly averting a government shut-down.
The state Senate fell a few votes short of passing a measure in March that would have made New Jersey the 12th state to legalize cannabis in America.
“While we are disappointed the legislature did not directly legalize marijuana, we are optimistic that 2020 will be the year New Jersey replaces its eight-decade-long experiment with marijuana prohibition with a more thoughtful and humane approach,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Washington, D.C.- based Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement after the votes.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney finally announced late last month that he would seek to put the question on the ballot for voters to decide. To place the question on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, both the Senate and Assembly needed to approve it either by a three-fifths supermajority in one year, or by simple majorities in two consecutive years. The vote in both houses just met the supermajority requirement.
The question is to read as follows (using the messy semantics now too typical, drawing a false distinction between “marijuana” and “cannabis”): “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’? Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis. The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Cannabis products would be subject to the state sales tax. If authorized by the legislature, a municipality may pass a local ordinance to charge a local tax on cannabis products.”
The question’s text on the ballot also notes that the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, a new body formed to oversee the state medical marijuana program, would also supervise the adult-use market. The commission, whose members have yet to be appointed, was formed by a state law passed in July to expand the medical program. Among other measures, this law raises the monthly limit for medical users from two to three ounces, and eliminates the sales tax on medical marijuana.
In contrast, the interpretive text for the ballot question specifies that adult-use cannabis products would be subject to state sales tax, and that municipalities will be free to impose an additional local tax, subject to approval by lawmakers.
Both Sides Ready for a Fight
Both advocates and opponents of legalization are welcoming the measure.
“Putting the issue to a referendum is both sensible and equitable,” Assembly Speaker Craig Couglin, a legalization proponent, said in a statement. “While not our preferred method of legislating, public questions allow voters to affirm or deny massive shifts in public policy.”
Similar sounds were made by state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who opposes legalization. “What a wonderful idea: Let the people decide,” she told NJ.com. Referencing dubious claims linking legal cannabis to traffic fatalities, she added: “We should expect more New Jerseyans dying every year if this were to pass.”
As NJ.com notes, the ballot question has left both supporters and opponents of legalization wary. Supporters are concerned that the brevity of a ballot question will fail to address issues such as the social justice implications of a potential legalization model, and how revenues will be directed — details that could have been addressed at length by traditional legislation. Meanwhile, opponents worry that lawmakers are punting to the voters after failed efforts to pass a law, instead placing the responsibility on citizens.
Several other states along the East Coast are building momentum to pass adult-use cannabis legislation in 2020. New Jersey has been racing with New York, its neighbor across the Hudson River, to see which would first legalize cannabis. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware are also in the running to join Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont as Eastern states that have embraced legalization.
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