On Nov. 3, New Jersey is one of four states where voters will decide on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.
If voters approve the ballot question, New Jersey would become the 12th state in the U.S., along with Washington, D.C., to legalize the possession, cultivation, sale and use of cannabis by adults age 21 and up.
Although the Garden State seemed poised last year to legalize recreational marijuana use—a propose that had backing from Gov. Phil Murphy and several key Democratic lawmakers—it failed to pass and legislators agreed to put the issue before voters.
Advocates have pushed for legalization for years, saying it would create jobs, increase tax revenue and end long-running disparities in marijuana arrests. Opponents believe it could jeopardize public safety.
Legalizing marijuana could help end racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws, as well as generate new tax revenues in New Jersey, according to pro-legalization groups.
Advocates say the industry could also create jobs, something they say could help as the state faces high levels of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leading up to the General Election, groups in favor of the measure have ramped up efforts to urge voters to approve the referendum.
With support from counties, like Essex and Hudson, and organizations like the NAACP, the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Students of Sensible Drug Policy, SOMA Action of South Orange and Maplewood and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, NJ CAN 2020 launched its campaign for legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis.
According to NJ CAN 2020, regulation of the industry “will allow for stringent quality control and best practices,” along with “better ensuring a safer product than an unregulated market.” Further, it would “also limit the ability of those underage from obtaining marijuana designed for adult use.”
Scott Rudder, President of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said New Jersey’s “war on cannabis” has been “a total failure.”
“We know it has disproportionately impacted minority communities and needlessly ruined the lives of many for no good reason. We know that many of the myths about cannabis have been disproven,” said Rudder, a former District 8 Assemblyman and Medford Township Mayor.
“Legalization is as much a Republican issue as it is a Democratic issue. It will reduce government spending while creating thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue for the state,” Rudder, a Republican said. “It will close the book on failed policies of the past that disproportionately harmed the same communities Republicans must reach out to if they ever expect to be relevant again in New Jersey.”
“Republican and Democratic-led states across the country have realized all this and acted on it. In fact, the entire country of Canada has legalized cannabis. New Jersey, hopefully, will be next.”
Murphy Urges ‘Yes’ Vote
Murphy, who ran on a platform that included legalization, has urged voters to support the ballot question—located on the back of mail-in ballots.
In his latest call-to-action, the Democratic governor appeared in a video released by NJ CAN 2020 to promote the measure.
In the ad, the governor said the ongoing criminalization of cannabis wastes New Jersey taxpayer dollars and emphasized how enforcement is done in a racially disproportionate manner.
“$150 million. That’s what processing marijuana arrests costs New Jersey taxpayers every year—arrests that disproportionately impact young people of color and make it harder for them to get a job, a place to live, even a credit card,” Murphy said. “Join me in correcting this wrong by voting ‘yes’ on Public Question Number One to legalize and regulate adult-use marijuana.”
“Marijuana prohibition and the unjust penalties associated with it have done real damage to New Jersey’s black and brown communities,” he said. “Let’s fix it and turn the page on prohibition and on your ballot.”
According to a 2019 legislative fiscal analysis, taxes on sales of recreational-use marijuana could generate around $126 million annually based on the state sales tax of 6.625%. However, revenue could potentially be much higher since municipalities would be allowed to charge cannabis businesses an additional 2% tax.
If voters sign off on the measure, the state legislature gets the green light to set up a regulated market for the drug, a process that could take up to two years.
New Jersey already has an established program for the use of marijuana for approved medical conditions.
Several organizations and legislators have spoken out against moving forward with the legalization of marijuana, however. Concerns have ranged from the risks of drivers operating vehicles while under the influence to a rise in substance abuse due to increased potency levels in marijuana.
Leading the opposition is Don’t Let NJ Go To Pot, a bipartisan coalition of organizations and groups against the measure.
Other anti-legalization groups include: NJ Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (RAMP), Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Jersey Psychiatric Association.
Additional the Ocean County Freeholders, New Jersey Republican State Committee and the New Jersey Republican County Chairmen’s Association have weighed in against the measure.
“To some, marijuana is viewed as a harmless drug and legalizing its use by public referendum is a foregone conclusion,” the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police said in a statement. “It is not and predictions are not always accurate. It is unrealistic to believe there will not be unintended consequences if recreational marijuana is legalized.”
Decriminalization, Not Legalization
“The detrimental effect recreational marijuana will have in the Garden State is undeniable. Study after study shows legalizing pot will put the public safety of New Jerseyans at risk. If our legislators continue to support this measure, they are ignoring the historical trends of harmful youth usage and the extensive negative effect legalized marijuana has had on communities of color,” Shawn Hyland, director of Advocacy for the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, said.
Although the New Jersey Psychiatric Association said it doesn’t support legalization, the organization is in favor of decriminalization.
Under current state law, marijuana possession offenses can result in up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Every year, police make over 30,000 marijuana-related arrests in New Jersey, which us one of the highest rates in the country, Garden State NORML recently reported.
“Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for certain lesser drug law violations—usually possession for personal use. By decriminalizing possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services, we can reduce the harms of drug misuse while improving public safety and health,” NJPA said in a statement.
They went on to call substance use disorders that stem from marijuana use “a serious and widespread health problem.”
“Adults may incur a number of cannabis-related harms including convictions for cannabis-impaired driving, car crash fatalities and injuries involving cannabis-intoxicated drivers; and emergency department admissions for the adverse effects of ingesting cannabis products,” NJPA said.
Social Injustice Solution?
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said while he believes it’s time to “take action on the social justice concerns” raised by pro-legalization advocates, he doesn’t think creating a commercial medical marijuana market in New Jersey will solve the issue.
“Marijuana commercialization is indeed a social injustice and polling has routinely shown New Jersey residents don’t want pot shops in their back yards,” he said in a statement. “It’s time to end this reckless push once and for all.”
Polls have indicated that voters in the Garden State plan to support November’s ballot measure.
A newly-released poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed 61% of likely voters, including 71% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans, are in favor of legalization. About 10% of voters are still undecided.
A Monmouth University survey in April found 64% of voters support legalizing the possession for personal use and 61% of respondents plan to vote “yes.”
Krista Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s poll director and a professor of politics/government at the school, pointed out how public opinion has shifted in recent years.
“In 2018, we asked about recreational marijuana legalization and found support that was well beneath a majority, let alone anything that approached the support we’re seeing today. Back then, 42% support what is being proposed today,” said Jenkins in a press statement. “The legislative maneuver to give voters the say looks like it will wind up with a decisive pro-pot outcome.”