Voters will have the chance to decide in November’s presidential election whether the state should legalize recreational marijuana for adult-use, after both houses approved putting the question on the ballot.
The measure passed by the supermajorities required in both chambers – with a 24-16 vote in the Senate and a 49-24 vote, with one abstention in the Assembly – to advance directly to the ballot. That means that lawmakers do not have to vote on Senate Concurrent Resolution 183 and Assembly Concurrent Resolution 840 again, which would have been the case if they garnered a simple majority passage in either house.
Unlike most legislation, the constitutional amendment would not require Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.
The approval followed a lengthy back-and-forth between conservative and progressive elected officials, all of which was drowned out by hundreds of demonstrators protesting a bill to remove religious exemptions for vaccinations.
“I submitted a bill for referendum and in an effort to stop legalization… to educate the public, so I’m happy about this particular piece of legislation,” said Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District, a staunch opponent of legalization. “I will not support it on the ballot.”
The proposed constitutional amendment will ask votes whether the state should legalize marijuana. The months leading up to the election could be preceded by months of public campaigning both for and against legalization.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, introduced the resolution in late November after determining that legalization via a bill could not muster enough votes in the state Senate.
“I believe the public recognize[s] that ‘marijuana prohibition’ has failed and they will support legalization for adults,” Scutari said in a statement.
The ballot resolution calls for the market to be regulated by the five-member Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which under a bill Murphy signed in July is already slated to oversee the state’s rapidly expanding medical marijuana program.
The state would tax cannabis retail sales at the 6.625 percent sales tax, but allow municipalities to impose an additional 2 percent surcharge on any sales within their borders.
Lawmakers are now disputing whether the ballot questions mean the Legislature would have to pass a bill actually legalizing marijuana, or whether the ballot question would suffice. Scutari argued the latter.
“It basically gives the CRC the opportunity to write the regulations, so we won’t have to be wrangling through it again,” Scutari told reporters prior to the Monday Senate voting session. “We’re not creating [the CRC] constitutionally, we’re directing them constitutionally. There’s a subtle difference.”
But Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-17th District, who chaired last week’s Assembly hearing, argued that the ballot question was just an extra step and that the Legislature needs to still pass the measure.
Sweeney, along with Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, agreed to support a decriminalization effort, which Murphy called “short-term” relief while the state awaits legalization. But that support was reluctant, with all three expressing concern that decriminalization would embolden the black market by taking away any criminal penalties.
The chief decriminalization proposal is Assembly Bill 5325, which would decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis and instead levy a $50 fine for anyone caught with up to that amount. Many of its sponsors also put their name on the marijuana expungement bill which the Legislature approved on Thursday.
And some of those lawmakers, such as Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, Assemblyman Benjamin Wimberley, D-25th District and Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-34th District, agree that decriminalization would be an effective “short-term relief.”