NJ marijuana legalization: Time for voters to decide on legal weed
New Jersey voters will soon decide — if they haven't cast their votes already — whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.
Should they back the change, long sought by racial and social justice advocates, they would be breaking new ground after years of starts and stops.
Public question No. 1 on the general election ballot would amend the New Jersey State Constitution to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for adults 21 years or older. If it passes, the state would oversee a cannabis industry in which adults could purchase legal weed at specifically licensed dispensaries.
Marijuana purchases would be taxed at the state sales tax rate, currently 6.625%, and likely with an additional 2% tax levied by municipalities where the purchase occurs.
Eleven states have already legalized marijuana, nine — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — through ballot questions.
The full text of the New Jersey ballot question is:
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.
If it passes, lawmakers must enact enabling legislation in order to codify the constitutional changes brought forth by the ballot question. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission — a body established last year that has yet to convene — would be charged with setting the rules overseeing the legal weed industry.
The ballot question is widely expected to pass. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll on Oct. 2 reported that 61% of New Jerseyans planned to vote "yes" on marijuana legalization.
The Ocean County Clerk's office explains what you will find inside the mail-in ballot and how to prepare it for the upcoming election. Asbury Park Press
Some key issues include:
Gov. Phil Murphy, elected in 2017, ran on a platform that included legalizing marijuana as a matter of social justice. At the time, legal weed campaigns in other states largely revolved around economic benefits.
According to an analysis of arrest data by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, more than 37,000 marijuana arrests occurred in New Jersey in 2017, about one arrest every 14 minutes in New Jersey alone.
And Black people are arrested for marijuana crimes at over three times the rate of white people, despite similar usage rates of the drug.
“We can’t fail, folks. We have to make sure this happens, and it will transform our state," Murphy said during an Oct. 8 online forum hosted by NJ CAN 2020, the official campaign for voters to vote "yes" on the ballot question.
Putting an end to marijuana arrests would not just stop those arrests of Black people but also eliminate the stigma that follows arrest — like incarceration, losing a professional license and being disqualified from student loans, said R. Todd Edwards, political action chair for the state NAACP chapter.
"With legalization comes the potential to remove unfairly harsh punishments now suffered by entire families due to cannabis offenses," Edwards said. "A vote for this measure is a vote to correct these injustices as well as imposed on black and brown New Jerseyans"
But opponents of marijuana legalization question whether social justice is truly the motivation, especially in light of legislative leaders refusing to put up bills to decriminalize marijuana, either as a precursor or replacement for full legalization.
The Legislature has seen various decriminalization bills introduced — but never heard — that would turn possession of anywhere from 10 grams to 1 pound of marijuana into a misdemeanor, levying offenders with a fine instead of a felony charge.
Amol Sinha, director of the ACLU of New Jersey, shares insights from members of the justice system who see the legalization of marijuana as a pivotal moment for the priorities of law enforcement. Asbury Park Press
And it would do so without openly selling the drug, said Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex.
"I appeal to everyone in our state to consider why has it taken two years and seven months (since Rice first introduced a decriminalization bill) to pass a common sense, compassionate, just law?" Rice asked in a September statement. "Could it have something to do with the greed of investors, 'insiders' and others who seek to profit by forcing the recreational marijuana industry into New Jersey — the nation’s most densely populated state and most ill-suited to absorb the projected harm?
"Could it be a fear that somehow decriminalization would jeopardize the legalization referendum on November’s ballot?"
Marijuana legalization activists say that decriminalization doesn't go far enough. The goal is to stop police interactions related to marijuana entirely — and allowing police officers to even stop and issue a fine could lead to "tragic outcomes," ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said.
"With decriminalization, we're not going to eliminate police interactions, even if those police interactions are simply to enforce violations or warnings or whatever the case might be," he said. "And it's those unnecessary police interactions that so often escalate and create tragic outcomes, especially for people of color, in our country."
Rice has been opposed to marijuana legalization from the start, arguing that its dangers, including health risks and youth access, would disproportionately affect Black communities, just as the arrests have.
He was one of a few Black Democratic legislators who, in part, killed a legal weed bill that came a few votes shy of passage last year.
That bill included numerous programs designed to encourage Black participation in the cannabis industry and included specific guidelines on how to repair the sociological damage of decades of marijuana enforcement.
The ballot question only scratches the surface. By design, constitutional amendments are usually left broad in order to allow future legislators to update and make changes as needed. That means that many of the social justice provisions in that original bill will instead have to be enacted in the Legislature.
The Rev. Charles Boyer, director of faith-based justice reform group Salvation and Social Justice, was an active supporter during the push to legalize marijuana through the Legislature.
But with a bare-bones question on the ballot, he's not confident the state will follow through on racial justice.
"I can't put my energy into telling people to vote 'yes' for something that has no strings attached for Black people," Boyer said. "As much as, yeah, I think legalization is the best pathway, that is only if we’re to do it in a racially just way."
At an online forum hosted by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, said he planned on introducing enabling legislation that would look "very similar" to that first legal weed bill.
If the question passes, he intends to push legislation to decriminalize marijuana — until the full enabling laws can be passed — and call on Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to issue a directive ordering the halt of marijuana arrests and prosecutions in the meantime.
Unlike drunk driving, there is no catch-all, empirical test to determine how intoxicated a driver might be.
Instead, New Jersey police departments rely on trained Drug Recognition Experts (DREs), who conduct a series of roadside tests to determine if a person is under the influence of a drug such as marijuana.
Nearly every police union and trade group in the state has come out against marijuana legalization for this very reason. Marijuana affects the body in different ways compared to alcohol and, depending on factors like strain and body type, it could cause different types of "high," from long and drawn out to delayed and potent.
And many new marijuana users may not know exactly how the drug affects them, which could lead to a driver not even realizing how high they might be.
"We do not have, and I don't see anything on the horizon for, a comparable field sobriety testing mechanism," said Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski, a vice president with the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police. "Because the potency has increased exponentially over the years as well the effects are much different. And I don't believe that science or medicine has caught up," he added.
Marijuana legalization opponents often point to data from other states that show an uptick in crashes and deaths linked to stoned drivers after the drug is legalized.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the nation's leading anti-marijuana legalization group, cited a Colorado Department of Transportation study which showed that 18% of fatal crashes from 2013 to 2018 involved a driver impaired by marijuana, compared with just 8.8% in the previous five years before Colorado voters legalized the drug.
But such data is flawed, NJ CAN 2020 claims: About 52% of Colorado drivers who tested positive for cannabis also tested positive for alcohol, while 15% tested positive for other drugs.
And since there is no empirical exam for drugged drivers, such as an alcohol breath test, it's impossible to know if a driver was high at the time of a crash, NJ CAN 2020 argues.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of marijuana, can last in the body for weeks, meaning a driver can test positive for marijuana shortly after a crash, even if the last joint they smoked was weeks prior to the crash.
It's more than just taxes, supporters say.
Legal weed advocates often refer to a 2016 study that estimated the state would bring in $300 million in tax revenue, but that study assumed a 25% tax rate, as was originally proposed, instead of the 6.625% sales tax rate codified in the ballot question.
And that $300 million is a drop in the bucket when it comes to state resources, representing less than 1% of the $32.7 billion 2021-22 budget.
Instead of tax revenue, legal weed supporters and some economists see a potential boom in terms of job creation that comes with a fledgling cannabis industry.
Chris Beals, CEO of marijuana technology company WeedMaps, estimated that as many as 30,000 jobs could be created through marijuana legalization.
"You're talking about storefronts, cultivation facilities and manufacturers that, frankly, aren't that different from other businesses out there," he said. "And you're seeing new jobs being created that are not 'weed' jobs.
"They're technicians, science jobs, engineering jobs and they just happen to be with respect to the cannabis industry."
But the job possibilities go beyond "plant-touching" careers, like those employees who work in a dispensary or cultivation center. According to Marijuana Business Daily, of the estimated $37.8 billion to $46.2 billion economic impact of marijuana in 2019, only a small part of that comes from retail sales.
"We're going to see a huge explosion in the ancillary market and I think we are already seeing that — a lot of law firms, accountants, consultants," said Jessica Gonzalez, an attorney and marijuana legalization advocate. "We always compare it to the Gold Rush, where the folks that made the most money were the folks who were selling the shovels.
"And so as this industry continues to grow, the ancillary market is going to grow faster."
Is marijuana really the "gateway drug"? It depends on who you ask.
Dr. David Nathan, a Princeton psychiatrist, doesn't believe so. Drug use is determined by a number of factors, he said, like genetics and socioeconomics.
So while it's true some marijuana users may be more likely to move on to more dangerous drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, it's not the marijuana that makes the person a drug user, Nathan said.
"The gateway myth would have you believe that wet sidewalks make it rain. It's a misunderstanding of cause and effect," said Nathan, founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, which pushes for legalized and regulated marijuana. "The factors that lead people to use drugs are a set of common liabilities, things like genetics, education or education deprivation."
But in anti-legalization circles, the "gateway drug" still continues to be marijuana — especially with the rise in e-cigarettes among young people.
In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 65% of high school students who used opioids within the last month had also used marijuana at some point in their lifetime.
But the same study also reports that there was no statistical change in marijuana use among children from 2017 to 2019. Just under 22% of young people reported using marijuana, down from over 23% in 2013.
Nathan expects New Jersey dispensaries to follow the strict 21+ rules in place in other states, checking IDs at the front door instead of simply at the counter. And the state will likely require companies to follow rules to ensure marijuana edibles don't resemble and aren't advertised like candy or sweets to ensure children's interests aren't piqued.
"Underage access has never been eliminated by the prohibition of cannabis. If anything, the opposite is true: If all the sources for purchasing cannabis are illegal, then the ability of wannabe underage users have much greater access because the people who are selling cannabis aren't checking for ID," Nathan said.
"In a regulated system, one of the cornerstones of licensure is ensuring that no sales are made to people under 21."
Legal weed opponents disagree and allege that by simply allowing more adults to purchase the drug, it will wind up in the hands of children.
According to a University of Michigan study cited by SAM, the national anti-legal weed group, daily marijuana use among high school seniors "increased dramatically" from 5.8% to 6.4% in 2019.
The Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey host a rally in front of the New Jersey statehouse to bring attention to marijuana legalization Asbury Park Press
But much like the issue of marijuana use leading to car crashes, the data is often incomplete and presented without context.
Since 2009, daily marijuana use among high school seniors has only increased from 5.2% and was actually down from a high of 6.6% in 2011, the year before the first legal weed ballot campaigns were successful.
Dr. Lewis Nelson, who chairs the emergency medicine department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, takes a bird's eye view when looking at marijuana legalization: In a short period of time, the public will suddenly have access to an intoxicant with which it may be unfamiliar.
Does the state really need another legal, readily available drug, Nelson asked.
"You're dealing with this mindset that, if something is legal then it's safe. It's OK. And I just don't think it's OK," Nelson said. "I’m not a prude, I’m not trying to say that smoking pot makes you an evil person. I just think we’re being led down a garden path that we’ll look on that we’ll look back and say, 'what were we thinking?'"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.