When a contingent of New Jersey lawmakers visited Colorado last month to see the Rocky Mountain State's marijuana-legalization program in action, they heard a lot about the panic created by a ballot question that was threatening to shut down part of the billion-dollar cannabis industry.
New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari said the referendum, which called for a ban on marijuana operations in Pueblo County, was an eye-opener for the eight lawmakers who toured a marijuana-growing operation, a cannabis chocolate manufacturing facility, and several dispensaries in Denver during their three- to four-day fact-finding trip. Scutari, a Democrat from Union County, said that he will keep in mind the far-reaching effect such a ballot question can have on a new industry as he drafts a bill to allow recreational cannabis in New Jersey.
The ballot question in Pueblo County is still not settled, though supporters of marijuana operations held a narrow lead Friday with votes still to count, according to the Denver Post.
If the ban passes, the state's largest cannabis farm and related marijuana businesses in that county would be forced to close by next fall. No new licenses would be granted going forward.
The question was initiated by residents who said the marijuana businesses in the mostly rural county were causing increased crime and vagrancy, the Denver Post reported.
County Commissioner Sal Pace, who spoke to the New Jersey lawmakers, said those comments are not true and said the industry has created more than 1,000 jobs and stimulated the economy after a steel mill had shut down.
Scutari, a municipal prosecutor from Linden, sees the referendum as a cautionary tale. The cannabis industry in Pueblo had made "significant investments in the county and in a moment's notice it could go down the tube," Scutari said in an interview last week. "These types of reversals and overhauls should not occur."
Scutari said he was still discussing with colleagues in the New Jersey Legislature how to address such a situation. He suggests the bill could contain a provision that would allow voters to seek a review every five years, instead of every year. He said there should be a balance, with towns and counties having some control over whether to allow dispensaries within their borders, but such control should not stifle business.
"I'm working on the bill now and should have it before the end of the year," said Scutari, who sponsored New Jersey's medical-marijuana bill six years ago. Recent polls show voters nationwide support legalization by more than 60 percent.
South Jersey lawmakers who accompanied Scutari on the trip included Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford; Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, a Republican from Medford; and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a Democrat from Cherry Hill. Sweeney said he would support a legalization bill, while the others said they were keeping an open mind and came away from Colorado impressed with its handling of its two-year-old program.
Colorado was the first state in the country to approve legalization and retail sales began in 2014. Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., followed, and were joined last week by Massachusetts, California, Nevada, and Maine after voters approved referendums to allow legalization.