Legalizing Weed Will Be Decided By N.J. Voters in Referendum Next Year


Nov, 2019 by Cannabiz Wholesaler

Legalizing Weed Will Be Decided By N.J. Voters in Referendum Next Year, Top Lawmaker Says

Top lawmakers announced Monday they’re abandoning their latest push for the state Legislature to approve legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey and will instead move forward with plans to ask Garden State voters to decide the high-stakes issue next November.

The state Senate fell a few votes short of passing a measure in March that would make New Jersey the 12th U.S. state to legalize weed — a major campaign vow of Gov. Phil Murphy. And Senate President Stephen Sweeney said last month state leaders would make a second run at convincing lawmakers to support the proposal during the lame-duck legislative session that ends in mid-January.

But after more than a year of roller-coaster negotiations, Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the sponsor of the bill, declared Monday “the votes just aren’t there” to pass it.

Instead, Sweeney and Scutari introduced a resolution to place a question on the November 2020 ballot asking New Jersey voters whether they approve amending the state constitution to allow people 21 and older to use marijuana.

That means even if the ballot referendum passes, you likely won’t be able to legally light up until 2021.

NJ Advance Media was the first to report Monday’s decision.

The Legislature still needs to approve the referendum. To get the question on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, both the state Senate and Assembly have to approve it by either three-fifths majority in one year or by simple majorities in consecutive years. If they opt to go for simple majorities, votes would have to occur before Jan. 1, and then early next year.

The governor has no say in approving or rejecting constitutional amendments.

According to the question, the state commission that currently oversees New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would regulate legal pot. And you would have to pay just the state sales tax, not an additional tax, if you buy it.

Sweeney and Scutari said the referendum would allow voters to approve "the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”

“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax," Sweeney and Scutari said in a joint statement.

“We are confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly, and the voters,” they added.

Polls have shown a majority of New Jersey residents support legalizing pot. This also means voters would decide the matter the same year as the 2020 presidential election, as well as races for U.S. Senate and House. Voter turnout is expected to be high.

The question on the ballot would read:

"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. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”

Sweeney’s announcement came just hours after Murphy told reporters he was optimistic about getting a legal weed vote passed. The governor said he met with he met with Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, on Friday and had “a good conversation.” “If we can find the votes legislatively in lame duck, count me all in,” Murphy said at an unrelated event in Landing. Also before Sweeney’s announcement, more than two dozen legalization advocates, including lawmakers, held a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton to push for a vote on the legal weed bill.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, estimated that thousands have been arrested for possession since the last legalization push fell apart in March.

Holley said kicking the decision to voters wouldn’t solve anything in the long run, because lawmakers would still have to write laws regulating the industry.

New Jersey has been weighing legalizing weed for years. And it got a boost when Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on the issue, became succeeded Republican Chris Christie as governor in January 2018. After all, both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats.

Eleven other states and the District of Columbia have legal marijuana. In most cases, the states’ voters have approved it. Only Illinois and Vermont have done so via legislation. Michigan will begin allowing adult-use marijuana sales on Dec. 1. Still, Murphy and top lawmakers said they preferred New Jersey take the legislative route because it would be easier to make changes.

Supporters say legalizing marijuana would bring new tax revenue to the state and create a new industry with new jobs.

They also stress it’s critical to cut down on arrests. FBI data shows police in New Jersey arrest more people for marijuana possession than every state except Texas and New York. Plus, African-Americans are arrested for pot at a rate that’s three time higher than whites, despite similar usage rates between the groups, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. But many Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been strongly opposed, with some claiming marijuana could be a “gateway drug.” That’s made it difficult to gather enough votes the last two years. A number of opposed lawmakers, however, have been open to letting voters decide.

This isn’t the first time Sweeney pulled the plug on the bill. After March’s failed vote, the Senate president said in May he was calling off any further attempts at gathering votes and would put the issue before voters next fall. But he said in recent months that leaders were planning to take another swing at the measure in the lame duck session — the period after Election Day and before new lawmakers take office in January. Sweeney told NJ Advance Media last month chances of securing enough votes were “50/50." Still, Sweeney likely needed a Republican or two to come on board. And one possible GOP pickup, state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, announced Friday he would not support a lame-duck vote and backs a voter referendum instead.

“It’s time to end the mixed message being sent to the public, the industry, law enforcement, and both opponents and supporters of marijuana legalization," O’Scanlon said in a statement.

Sweeney and Scutari said leaders “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively, but we recognize that the votes just aren’t there.”

“We respect the positions taken by legislators on what is an issue of conscience,” the lawmakers added. “We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color."

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