12/16/19 By DAN ULLOA
Amidst a very busy day in Trenton that saw the statehouse be filled to capacity with activists for a variety of causes, both chambers of the New Jersey legislature passed a bill that puts the cannabis legalization ballot question up for a vote in November 2020.
The Senate passed SRC 183, Cannabis personal, non-medical use by adults proposed amendment to the constitution, whereby those 21 and older can purchase and possess cannabis subject to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. It passed there 24-16 and the Assembly passed it 49-24. This means that a majority of New Jerseyans must vote for it next year so that it can become law as a constitutional amendment. Because it passed with a ⅗ majority, then a second legislative vote is not needed next year.
The question will say:
“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. Cannabis products would be subject to the State sales tax. If authorized by the Legislature, a municipality may pass a local ordinance to charge a local tax on cannabis products.”
“We support any move beyond prohibition,” said Charlana McKeithen, Executive Director of Garden State NORML. “Now marijuana consumers and anyone who supports reform can cast a vote for freedom.
Advocates have been pushing hard for legalization since Governor Phil Murphy (D) was first elected. But legislators have been inundated by lobbyists representing Big Pharma and religious interests have managed to block it. In the spring it was announced the comprehensive cannabis reform bill would be separated and passed that way. The Jake Honig Act, for example, expanded New Jersey’s paltry medical marijuana program in that manner.
Advocates held great hope that legalization would pass in the lame-duck session after the Assembly election. But mere hours after advocates held a press conference in Trenton, it was announced that the votes had not been obtained for legalization via the legislative process and instead a legalization ballot question would be tried instead. It was thought to be easier to pass.
Murphy was also unable to horse trade or otherwise sway Senators Ron Rice (D-Essex) and Dick Codey (D-Essex) who was a great backer of his gubernatorial campaign. Rice is a former cop while Codey was swayed by old propaganda after being a mental health champion.
Murphy has had a number of his initiatives blocked by the more moderate State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), cannabis among them.
After seeing what a legalized state looks like in Nevada, it is hard to see this as a true win.
Elsewhere in the country, it is quite easy for a group of citizens to initiate a petition by gathering a set amount of signatures that bypass the legislature. This is especially popular in California.
Many are unhappy with a legalization ballot question because it takes away the legislators’ ability to include social justice and small business protection provisions.
Unanswered Questions Amidst Legalization Ballot Question
Nothing has been announced about the Cannabis Regulatory Commission since it was signed into law as part of the Jake Honig Act in July. No one knows how many people will serve on it nor its scope of function.
There has also not been any announcement regarding the race for the 24 medical marijuana licenses that were to be awarded.
Amidst all this delay while other states rake in the millions, New Jersey is mired in an outdated and racist system that according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) arrests 94 people a day in New Jersey. And that’s actually up from 85 people a day in the previous year.
Polls indicate that 60 percent of New Jerseyans support cannabis legalization.
Cannabis Expungement Passes
A bill that expunges the criminal records of those with past cannabis convictions passed the legislature today as well. It was initially passed earlier this year but Murphy conditionally vetoed it, arguing the process for expungement outlined was too cumbersome. Thus, a process that is said to expedite expungements quicker was passed quickly through committee on Thursday and the full Senate and Assembly today.
The problem is though that while cannabis is still illegal in New Jersey, more people will likely be convicted and need their records expunged as well. It is a piecemeal measure stemming from the failure of the legislature to pass a comprehensive cannabis bill in the spring. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction.
Decriminalization would address this to some degree but does not create a safe, legal market where people can buy cannabis.