NJ marijuana legalization: Gov. Phil Murphy asks voters to make 'history' with legal weed
With less than a month before Election Day, the campaign to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is finally heating up.
Gov. Phil Murphy, state Sen. Nick Scutari and a panel of activists on Thursday evening joined an online panel discussing the constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, the first of three questions on the ballot this year.
Murphy, who included marijuana legalization on his 2017 gubernatorial campaign platform, has long argued that legalizing weed is an issue of social justice.
“On Nov. 3, we are committed to making history in New Jersey to pass the legal adult use of marijuana,” Murphy said, introducing the event organized by NJ CAN 2020, the campaign urging voters to vote "yes" on marijuana legalization.
“We can’t fail, folks. We have to make sure this happens, and it will transform our state.”
In New Jersey, an estimated 94 marijuana arrests are made per day, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. And Black marijuana users are arrested at nearly three times the rate of white marijuana users, despite similar usage rates.
Murphy pledged that marijuana would be legalized "in a way that addresses racial and social justice issues head-on and creates the kind of opportunities that we're now robbing from too many of our fellow residents."
If weed is legalized, activists have called for minorities — especially Black people previously convicted of marijuana crimes — to play an active role in the resulting cannabis industry. In 2019, bills to expand medical marijuana access and legalize weed each called for 30% of all licenses to be issued to Black people, women and disabled veterans.
The bills also called for the creation of a business development office within the Cannabis Regulatory Commission that would focus on creating policies and standards related to minorities' involvement in marijuana businesses.
"We don't want to Black and brown people to be the poster child for this equalization after legalization and not reap any of the benefits from the financial gains," said R. Todd Edwards, New Jersey political action chairman for the NAACP. "We will be fighting to make sure that there will be reinvestments directly into our communities harmed by the current unfair cannabis laws."
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What happens if it passes?
As written, the marijuana legalization question only states that the drug would be legalized, taxed and sold at dispensaries overseen by a government entity:
"This amendment would legalize a controlled form of marijuana called 'cannabis.' Only persons at least 21 years of age could use cannabis products legally.
"The Cannabis Regulatory Commission would oversee the new adult cannabis market. This commission was created in 2019 to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program. The scope of the commission’s new authority would be detailed in laws enacted by the Legislature.
"All retail sales of cannabis products in the new adult cannabis market would be subject to the State’s sales tax. If authorized by the Legislature, a municipality may pass a local ordinance to charge a local tax on cannabis products."
If the ballot question passes, the Legislature will have to past enabling legislation, including a bill that would stop arrests for possession of marijuana.
The CRC will be asked to hone the specifics of New Jersey's legal weed industry, including issuing licenses and setting hours, purchase limits and other details.
Scutari said the 2019 legal weed bill, which came close to becoming law, would serve as the “framework” for any enabling legislation, “with some tweaks and small changes.”
He hinted that enabling legislation could be introduced before Election Day, saying legislators were “getting close to the legislation we’re going to introduce.”
“We’re working on trying to improve that, working with our partners in the Assembly in the governor's office to try to get together a really good piece of legislation that we can (pass) right away” after votes are certified, Scutari sad.
Scutari’s goal is to include language that “eviscerates all pending charges for simple possession of marijuana” in any complementary bill and called on Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to cease all arrests and prosecutions on marijuana possession if the ballot measure passes.
Legalizing marijuana is a popular issue in New Jersey. In April, a Monmouth University poll reported that 61% of New Jerseyans were in favor of legalizing weed for recreational purposes, up from 48% in 2014.
But marijuana legalization opponents argue that legalizing marijuana would leave the drug in the hands of children and allow stoned drivers on the road without an objective test to determine their sobriety, such as an alcohol breath test.
Opponents also argue that state officials' refrain of "social justice" isn't genuine, as marijuana arrests would halt if the state decriminalized the drug but didn't fully legalize it.
"We agree with the description of the problem — there's no reason to be spending money on the incarceration of people who are charged criminally for the possession of small amounts of marijuana," said Gregg Edwards, executive director of legal weed opposition group Don't Let NJ Go to Pot, last week.
To advocates, decriminalization is a stopgap — not a replacement for full marijuana legalization.
"With decriminalization, we're not going to eliminate police interactions, even if those police interactions are simply to enforce violations or warnings," ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said. "And it's those unnecessary police interactions that so often escalate and create tragic outcomes, especially for people of color in our country."
The panel discussion was hosted by NJ CAN 2020, the campaign urging voters to vote "yes" on marijuana legalization. While many expected New Jersey, which would be the first state in the region to legalize weed, to become the center of a eight-figure media campaign, instead it's been a quiet one.
The panel discussion represented the first public, advertised campaign event by either side and was held less than a month before Election Day.
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Both NJ CAN 2020 and Don't Let NJ Go to Pot have said their campaign plans were significantly altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at email@example.com or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.