New Jersey voters will decide next year whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use.
Super-majorities in the state Senate and Assembly on Monday approved putting on the November 2020 ballot a question that if approved would make cannabis use legal in the Garden State for anyone over age 21.
In the Senate, it was passed by 24-16, exactly the number of votes required to constitute a three-fifths super-majority. The Assembly voted 49-23 with one abstention.
“We support any move beyond prohibition,” said Charlana McKeithen, executive director of Garden State NORML, part of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Now marijuana consumers and anyone who supports reform can cast a vote for freedom.”
If the referendum passes, the measure will return to the legislature where lawmakers will need to hash out regulations governing a new recreational cannabis industry. It will not need the approval of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who ran on a platform that included legalizing marijuana.
“I’m pleased, but somewhat surprised” by the vote, said Scott Rudder, a former Republican assemblyman who is now president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. "We’ve had 82 years of cannabis prohibition, so this was necessarily going to take time. We hoped it would get done through legislative process. That wasn’t in the cards.
“Now, we have a significant majority in both the Assembly and Senate. All polling has suggested that this is overwhelmingly supported by voters, so we expect a positive outcome in 2020. But remember, there are those that are opposed to it and will spend a lot of money to try to defeat it.”
Rudder said the CannaBusiness Association and advocates would promote their views on legalization aggressively to ensure a victory. “We’re not going to take anything for granted,” he said.
In recent polls, 60% of New Jersey’s voters indicated they favored legalizing cannabis for recreational use. If approved by the voters, New Jersey would become the 11th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize recreational marijuana.
One of those who will likely work to defeat the measure was Robert Zlotnick, executive director of Atlantic Prevention Resources and an outgoing member of the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
“I don’t think the voters have any more knowledge about this area than the Legislature does,” Zlotnick said. "I don’t think what they’re doing is in the best interest of the citizens.
"The voters ‘aren’t going to get their taste,’ as Tony Soprano might say. They’re selling this as a social justice issue, but that’s bull,” Zlotnick said. “They’re doing what will make the most money for the most politically connected people.”
If voters approve the referendum question, anyone over 21 would be able to use cannabis in New Jersey. A regulatory commission would oversee sales. Purchases would be subject to the state’s sales tax, and host towns would be able to set their own levies of up to 2%.
“The Senate and Assembly just agreed to amend the constitution to allow marijuana sales — but that day could be pretty far off,” said Chris Goldstein, a South Jersey organizer for NORML. “Even after voters get a say, it could be years until regulated sales take place. I just hope it doesn’t take years for police to stop arresting consumers.”
In March, a plan to legalize marijuana through legislation fell apart, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) pulled the bill after realizing it was short of the 21 votes needed to pass the upper chamber.
“Legalization is a significant step in public policy that will have a real-life impact on social justice, law enforcement, and the lives of people in communities throughout New Jersey,” Sweeney said in a statement issued after the Monday vote.
“With the public’s approval, we will be able to move forward to correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color at the same time marijuana is regulated and made safe and legal for adults.”