By DAN ULLOA
With legalization through legislation dead, the NJ Legislature moved ahead with the bill to make cannabis legalization a ballot question next year as an amendment to the state constitution today. Advocates making up the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) coalition testified in favor of the bill, which easily passed out of both the Assembly Oversight and Senate Commerce committees.
The ACLU-led coalition New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform includes Doctors For Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), Garden State NORML, the NAACP, the Law Enforcement and Action Partnership, the Latino Action Network (on whose board I sit, full disclosure), and the Rev. Charles Boyer, among others.
“We need to stop arrests now. We need to restore the rights and clear the records of hundreds of thousands of residents. And, we need to create a truly equitable market, one that gives back to communities deeply affected by Prohibition, a market that puts small-business New Jersey locals first,” said Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen.
McKeithen added that 62 percent of New Jerseyans favor legalization according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
It is not an ideal situation as many had hoped legalization itself could pass the lame duck as a regular bill.
Since it is a presidential year, the ballot question is expected to pass easily. Afterward, though the legislature still has to vote to approve legalization. Thus, it merely delays the process that New York and Connecticut are only slightly behind at this point.
Many were wary of cannabis legalization via ballot question because they feel it would exclude the social justice provisions that many feel are key to creating an equitable industry in New Jersey and addressing the harm done by the War on Drugs. A number of advocates are extremely frustrated with this latest failure on the part of the legislature.
“Marijuana prohibition drives markets underground and abdicates control of these markets to those who typically operate outside the boundaries of the law,” McKeithen said. “Regulation, by contrast, allows for lawmakers to establish legal parameters regarding where, when, and how an adult cannabis market may operate. Legalization also provides oversight regarding who may legally operate in said markets and provides guidelines so that those who do can engage in best practices.”
While cannabis legalization would be a ballot question, decriminalization and expungement bills are supposed to be voted on by the end of the lame-duck session as well. These separate measures would bring justice to the thousands of individuals, the majority of whom are disproportionately minorities, who were caught as part of the long and destructive War on Drugs. But given the nature of New Jersey politics, don’t hold your breath.
Decriminalization opposed to legalization would not create a legal market. But is seen as having broader support with a number of Democratic State Senators supporting it who were apprehensive of voting for full legalization. With their votes, it is more likely than ever that progress will be made on cannabis reform in New Jersey by the end of the year, if not the lame-duck session.
While not ideal, it is certainly making the best of a bad situation.
Governor Phil Murphy (D), who has been eager to sign cannabis reform legislation, has come out in favor of decriminalization as an alternative to full legalization. Murphy campaigned on full legalization. He infamously declaring it would be done within his first 100 days in office, not anticipating the complications that would arise when dealing with the reluctant legislature.
Advocates Rally For a Better Ballot Question
While the hearings were going on, activists including Sativa Cross, the Indica Alliance, and NJ Revolution Radio rallied outside. They were fundamentally unhappy with the legalization bill Senator Nick Scutari (D-Union) introduced, S. 2703, which the NJUMR had been pushing for. Specifically, they felt that the bill favored large corporations over local small businesses and did not include the ability to grow plants at home, AKA homegrow. They recently rallied for its inclusion, citing the high price and low quality of the cannabis available within the state’s current dispensaries.
Ideally, cannabis legalization, decriminalization, and expungement will pass by the end of the year, making it a happy new year!