With cannabis legalization via legislation having fallen apart amidst an announcement that a ballot referendum would take place quickly after hopes had been renewed that it would pass in the lame-duck session, cannabis advocates in New Jersey are unhappy and planning their next move.
“The timing was surprising, I’ll be honest,” said Sarah Fajardo, Policy Director for the ACLU of New Jersey.
She did not expect the announcement by State Senate leaders to pursue a ballot initiative instead of a pure legislative push.
“I was not expecting that announcement,” Fajardo added.
Fajardo said that they had been conversing with legislators who thought that after a great deal of time that the votes were there.
“It was a complicated day at the statehouse. We had heard from legislators that a referendum was possible. Some preferred that,” Fajardo said. She added that the legislators always had a wide range of opinions on how to move forward, which complicated matters.
However, despite the adversity, Fajardo is undeterred.
“We’re not ready to give up the fight via legislation. We are committed to passing legislation,” she said.
To show there is indeed public support for legalization, the ACLU sent a petition demanding legalization to the Governor and the legislature, which had 2,000 signatures attached. They also plan to push for op-eds to be placed in major outlets across the states.
The ACLU leads the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) coalition of civil rights groups, doctors, faith leaders, and criminal justice advocates that have been seeking to advance cannabis legalization. The ACLU and the NJUMR are adamant a referendum would delay the process and vastly complicate the process. They are looking for more advocates to join to push for racial and social justice.
Changing Cannabis Laws
Nine of the 11 states that legalized cannabis do so via a ballot referendum. However, New Jersey’s ballot referendum mechanism does not allow such a simple process. It requires the legislature to pass a bill to add it to the ballot in the first place. They worry the wording of the questioning they could confuse voters.
Another major concern regarding a referendum is that will leave out potentially crucial language, such as a clause to address the need for criminal justice reform and helping small businesses, especially those owned by people of color. And even if the referendum gets a majority of the votes, the legislature still has to pass a bill.
“We don’t think that’s the right way to make policy in our state,” Fajardo said.
Plan B for Cannabis Legalization
While Governor Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed a bill that expunged criminal records that was spun off the main bill at the end of the summer, its sponsor Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), has reintroduced a version that contained a description outlining the process for automatic expungement which Murphy and the ACLU are especially ardent about.
While Fajardo has not seen the new language of the bill, she said it could pass in the lame-duck session.
“Hopefully, our legislators will help lead on the issue and join the vanguard of justice,” Fajardo said.
According to the ACLU, 94 people a day are being arrested in New Jersey for cannabis possession.
Those wishing to join their advocacy efforts to pass cannabis legalization, they can find out more here.
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