Marijuana legalization to head to voters for 2020 election (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//November 18, 2019

Marijuana legalization to head to voters for 2020 election (updated)

Daniel J. Munoz//November 18, 2019

New Jersey’s top lawmakers and the Murphy administration are canning efforts to pass a bill through the state Legislature during lame duck to legalize marijuana for adult-use, opting instead to let voters decide on legalization during the 2020 presidential elections.

The constitutional amendment introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Nicholas Scutari on Monday would legalize the use of recreational marijuana for anyone at least 21 years of age, and establish a Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee the new market.

In the original bill, pulled from a vote in March, the tax rate was $42 an ounce. But the new resolution says there would be no tax rate except for the standard state sales tax.

It is not clear if the commission would have five members like the original bill called for.

Democratic lawmakers hold a press conference with Gov. Phil Murphy on March 25, 2019 in Trenton following the pulling of legislation to legalize adult-use marijuana. – DANIEL J. MUNOZ

Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leadership long-resisted pursuing legalization via a ballot question because any, inevitable, changes to the program would have to go before voters in yet another ballot referendum.

Lawmakers still plan to vote on a measure setting up an expungement process for low-level cannabis offenses. Meanwhile, a measure decriminalizing possession of certain amounts of cannabis has met resistance from Murphy and legislative leadership.

“We made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively, but we recognize that the votes just aren’t there,” reads the joint statement Monday afternoon from Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Scutari, D-21st District.

To show up on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, both houses would need to pass the measure by a super-majority by the summer, or they would need to pass it twice in both houses by a simple majority for two years in a row.

That latter option means lawmakers have until Dec. 31 to pass the measure by a simple majority.

“We will have the Legislature vote on the plan during the current legislative session and expect the proposal to be on the ballot in 2020, when voter turnout will be maximized for the national election,” the joint statement adds. “We are confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”

“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, said in a statement that echoed expectations of high voter turnout during a presidential election.

Just hours earlier, several progressive and social justice groups made a plea to legislative leadership to push through a legalization bill, pointing to a growing increase in low-level cannabis offenses which have disproportionately affected people of color.

The Monday afternoon press conference unveiling the campaign was attended by Scutari and Assemblyman Jamal Holley, D-20th District.

“I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue,” Murphy said in a written statement. “However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that the new resolution to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana did not specify what the tax rate on cannabis would be. That is incorrect, the new measure says there would be no tax rate except for the standard state sales tax.