TRENTON — State lawmakers inched closer Thursday to letting voters decide next year if marijuana should be legal in New Jersey.
“It’s time we give the voters an opportunity to weigh in on this,” Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union) said during the final — and constitutionally required — hearing before legislators vote on whether to put recreational marijuana legalization on the November ballot.
That vote is scheduled for Monday. Scutari said it would have been preferable to legalize marijuana through the Legislature, but that "appears to not be the avenue we can go.”
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. Last month, another try fell through when lawmakers announced they’d let the voters decide in 2020 and tackle decriminalization in the near term.
Advocates say legalization could be beneficial to many.
“We believe that prohibition has been a spectacular failure that has caused a great deal of suffering,” said Karen O’Keefe, state policy director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “When you regulate cannabis, you have protections for workers, you don’t have people at risk of violence … [or] subject to dangerous strains.”
Others called the prohibition against recreational use of the drug a social injustice, saying black people are three times more likely than white people in New Jersey to be arrested for possession, according to an analysis by the state’s ACLU chapter.
If passed, use of cannabis would be legal in New Jersey for individuals 21 years and older, with a regulatory commission overseeing sales. Purchases would be subject to the state sales tax, with towns able to levy their own charge. As of now, New Jersey could become the 12th state to make marijuana legal. It’s been nearly a decade since the state legalized medicinal marijuana. (Pennsylvania followed suit three years ago.)
Opponents said the risks to public health are too grave and legislators should consider them carefully before voting on the proposed amendment.
“Anyone who supports legalization of marijuana will have blood on their hands," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), citing reports that traffic deaths in states including Colorado and Washington increased after recreational marijuana became legal.
The constitutional amendment needs to pass both houses of the legislature with a three-fifths majority, or by a simple majority in two consecutive years, for it to appear on the general election ballot in 2020, when voter turnout is expected to be high because of the presidential election.
The issue is popular in the state, with 62% of New Jersey residents supporting legalization, according to a Monmouth University poll.