Legalization to go before New Jersey voters in 2020

Posted on December 17th, 2019 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , .

New JerseyVoters in New Jersey will decide whether to legalize cannabis in the Garden State next year. A measure approved by both houses of the state Legislature officially places the question on the 2020 ballot—ending long months of inaction on a promised legalization bill.

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 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 (D-Union County), a sponsor of the measure, told NJ Advance Media: "People actually smoke marijuana every day. Can you believe it? But until your relative gets arrested over this substance that is widely used in this state and country," some people will not understand why this fact is important.

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. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Cumberland County) 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."

An "interpretation" of the question to be included on the ballot states 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 (D-Middlesex), 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 Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), who opposes legalization. "What a wonderful idea: Let the people decide," she told Advance Media. 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 Advance Media 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.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement after the votes: "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. Marijuana prohibition has derailed thousands of lives in New Jersey, while driving marijuana production and sales to the sometimes dangerous illicit market. Only with adult-use legalization can the state regulate cannabis to protect workers, communities, and consumers."

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.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

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