New Jersey Cannabis Referendum To Move Ahead In 2020

Lawmakers announced a resolution last Monday that will put the issue of New Jersey cannabis legalization to a referendum in 2020.  The move passed with a “supermajority” of 49-24 in the Assembly and a vote of 24-16 in the Senate.

The referendum comes as a result of failed attempts by New Jersey Democrats to legalize through legislation earlier this year. The motions failed to garner enough support and persuade opponents. Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced in May that the bill would be put on hold.

The move could make New Jersey the 12th state to fully legalize recreational cannabis in the US.

New Jersey Cannabis Referendum

The measure will ask voters if they approve of legalizing cannabis in the state for adults over the age of 21. The specific wording on the ballot reads “do you approve of amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called “cannabis”?  Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis.”

The amendment would also mean that:

  • New Jersey’s existing medical marijuana state commission would manage the proposed recreational cannabis market,
  • All recreational pot would be subject to a 6.65% sales tax,
  • and Governor Phil Murphy does not need to sign off on the proposal (although he is strongly in favor of legalization).

A number of Assembly lawmakers sponsored the motion. This includes Annette Quijano, Jamel Holley and Angela McKnight.  It was motivated by the ineffectiveness of prohibition, and the social justice issues surrounding it.  According to Quijano “I believe, with this constitutional amendment, we have listened to the will of the majority of New Jerseyans and taken a common-sense approach to regulation of cannabis. This is a new arena for New Jersey law and one that we hope will protect citizens, support communities and create a new economic driver for the state.”

Cannabis in New Jersey

Like most of the United States, recreational cannabis remains illegal in New Jersey. The state has one of the highest arrest rates in the entire country. There were 35,700 arrests in 2016.  The state also has one of the highest numbers of police officers per capita.

In 2010, New Jersey officially legalized medical marijuana.  During his time in office, the Murphy administration has made a number of changes to the current program. This year major legislation was passed making it easier for New Jersey patients to access medical cannabis.

Anti-Prohibition Voices In The Government

The approval of a referendum is unsurprising given the number of pro-cannabis lawmakers and officials currently in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy has been a particularly strident advocate for cannabis reforms.  Prior to being sworn in in January 2018, Murphy pledged that he would sign a bill legalizing pot as soon as it was ready.  He has also indicated that much of his support comes from a position of social justice. Murphy has stated, “if it doesn’t pass the social justice test, you can’t talk about revenue implications, and the fact of the matter is that we have the widest white-nonwhite gap of persons incarcerated in New Jersey”.

Tax revenue brought in through cannabis could potentially be a huge deal in the state. Estimates indicate the possibility of collecting up to $300 million a year from the sale of legal pot. The number is based on a 25 percent tax.

The announcement of the 2020 referendum is only part of the story. A new bill was signed into law by Murphy last Wednesday. The bill seeks to expunge the criminal records of thousands of New Jersey residents with marijuana convictions.

Assembly Bill 5991 will:

  • effectively seal cannabis offenses after a 10 year period,
  • make possession of up to five pounds expungable,
  • and reduce the waiting time before someone with a conviction can apply for an expungement.

In addition, New Jersey State Legislature has pledged to provide $15 million dollars to the Department of Law and Public Safety to carry out the reforms.  According to Gov. Murphy, the government is “giving New Jersey one of the most progressive expungement laws in the nation, allowing more people to fully participate in our society and our economy”.

Reaction From Cannabis Advocates

The push for a referendum represents a major step forward.  It’s also a move that’s riding on the success of other initiatives in the region. This includes New York’s recent decriminalization bill.

While the failed attempts of Democratic lawmakers to legalize through the state legislature may have been disappointing, many advocates see the referendum as a major opportunity.  In a statement from the Marijuana Policy Project, director of state policies Karen O’Keefe said that “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.”

Others have been more critical, seeing it as a way for lawmakers to shirk their responsibilities.  Social justice advocates in particular have been vocal about the way in which New Jersey is handling the issue. American Civil Liberties Union executive director Amol Sinha commented that “a constitutional amendment asks voters to make a decision first and find out the details later, undermining the principles of a representative, participatory democracy.”

Some also took issue with the proposed wording of the ballot.  Activist Chris Goldstein has agreed that the ballot in its current form doesn’t address key issues.  He has advocated for a revision which includes the removal of “criminal penalties for personal possession, cultivation and use”.