The process of placing New Jersey marijuana legalization on the 2020 ballot is officially underway.
The Assembly Oversight on Thursday held a public hearing on the constitutional amendment which, if placed on the ballot and passed, would make New Jersey the 12th state to legalize weed for recreational purposes. The Senate Commerce Committee held its own public hearing too Thursday afternoon. “We have people whose lives are being ruined because the law prohibits the use of marijuana,” said Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Middlesex, who chairs the Assembly Oversight Committee. “We’re not doing this responsibly.”
Both houses are scheduled to vote on the ballot bill on Monday, Dec. 16. If three-fifths of all members — 24 votes in the Senate and 48 votes in the Assembly — approve the legal weed ballot measure, it will officially be placed on the November 2020 ballot. Otherwise, both houses would have to approve the ballot bill again, with the standard 21 Senate votes and 41 Assembly votes. Only after the full Senate and Assembly pass the ballot bill twice will it be placed on the ballot for Election Day 2020.
As written, the ballot resolution only specifies three facts: Marijuana would be legal. It would be regulated by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the body already created to oversee medical marijuana. And it would be subject to the state sales tax, with the possibility of a future law allowing municipalities to pass their own local taxes, up to 2%. It's a much simpler, more basic version of the legal weed bill that legislators debated for over a year, which included not just tax information but language governing dispensaries, home deliveries and consumption lounges. Those details would now be worked out by the CRC or accompanying laws passed by the Legislature.
Both committees took testimony from legal weed supporters and opponents for over an hour. The reasoning to legalize marijuana — or not — hasn't changed. Supporters argued that it would stop the arrest of black marijuana users, who are arrested at nearly three times the rate of white marijuana users, despite similar usage rates.
Opponents argued that it would make it easier for children to get their hands on marijuana, which is difficult to research in the United States since it's illegal on the federal level, meaning that federally-funded universities risk their funding if they bring it on campus. Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, R-Ocean, said he was concerned that there was no objective test to determine if a driver is high while driving, “potentially endangering the public and families driving down the road.” Attorney John H. Barr, municipal prosecutor for the town of Clark, said drugged driving was a concern — but said that “technology is bringing us in that direction and we’ll be there very soon. The danger presented from a public safety standpoint is not significant enough to not go ahead with supporting the legalization of marijuana,” Barr said.
What was different about Thursday's hearings were the cautious support legal weed advocates gave for the ballot bill. Nearly everyone who spoke in support of the ballot resolution said they did so cautiously. The language of the bill could be confusing for voters, said Bill Caruso, cofounder of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, an advocacy group. And in the meantime, New Jersey would continue to stay "behind the curve."
“I’m concerned we’re going to be waiting for this. I’m concerned we’re going to be behind the curve for economic development and for social justice,” Caruso said. “And I’m concerned about the confusion over this constitutional amendment. People don’t understand what they’re voting on. “There’s no tax rate because there can’t be. There’s no racial and social justice set-asides (for marijuana business licenses) because there can’t be.”
Chris Goldstein, a legal weed activist with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called for a ballot question that specifically eliminated all criminal penalties for marijuana possession, use or cultivation. Doing so would give black market pot dealers a “path to legitimacy,” he said. “This language is not going to enshrine the justice that you say you’re looking for,” Goldstein said. “These are the future small business owners. We want our money going into local pockets.”
In addition to the legal weed ballot measure, the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday also advanced a bill that would change the process for expunging criminal records, specifically marijuana arrests. The bill would also establish a “clean slate” process to clear a person’s entire criminal history — eventually by an automatic process — and earmark $15 million to implement the expungement reforms. But advocates said that waiting another year before the marijuana legalization constitutional amendment, if approved, goes into effect will mean over 30,000 more arrests for marijuana possession. Instead, the Legislature should pass a decriminalization bill as soon as possible, Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen said. Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, introduced a decriminalization bill earlier this year that hasn't received a floor vote.
“Tens of thousands of people will likely vote for the first time just to support marijuana reform,” said Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen. “We encourage the New Jersey Legislature to stop arresting and incarcerating our New Jersey residents — many of whom are people of color.” Melissa Robbins, an organizer with Smart Approaches for Marijuana, said she was against legalizing the drug, citing children’s health. By nixing the legal weed push and decriminalizing the drug, "white men in suits" would be prevented from capitalizing on marijuana, she said. “Why are we putting the cart before the horse,” Robbins asked. “A lot of people who don’t stand on the corner, who don’t have arrest records, who come to work in suits stand to make millions of dollars. The new drug dealers in America will be white men in suits.” Under current law, possession of under 50 grams of marijuana is a disorderly persons offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of over 50 grams is a fourth-degree crime, which comes with a maximum 18-month prison sentence and $25,000 fine.
Mike Davis writes with an honest insight. Contact him at 732-643-4223, firstname.lastname@example.org or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.