“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” read a cable sent by Mark Twain from London to the press in the United States after his obituary had been mistakenly published.
The same could be said about the prospects for an adult-use cannabis law being passed by the New Jersey legislature. Media reports indicate that the bill is all but dead in Trenton and that the only alternative is a 2020 ballot referendum in the form of a constitutional amendment.
This conclusion is inaccurate. Lawmakers still have time to vote on the bill, and more importantly, they should. A constitutional amendment is not the answer to legalize adult-use cannabis in New Jersey.
There are of course advantages to taking this issue directly to voters. A ballot initiative is likely to pass — almost 60 percent of the state’s population is in favor of adult-use cannabis. A ballot initiative would also save lawmakers from the arduous process of crafting the language and building consensus to implement the will of the people.
That said, a ballot measure which initiates a constitutional amendment presents risks that are too great to overlook — both for medical-cannabis patients who would benefit from the adult-use market, and small-business owners and workers trying to get a foothold in this nascent industry.
Logistical complications of a referendum
Voter-approved amendments are nearly impossible to modify after they have been passed because of New Jersey’s constitution. To adjust the language of a ballot initiative which amends the state’s constitution requires advocates to obtain either a three-fifths majority vote in both chambers of the state Legislature, in a single legislative session, or a simple majority vote in both chambers in two separate sessions. Both scenarios would require advocates to get voter approval once again via the ballot measure in the next election cycle. Did that sound complex and tantamount to impossible? That’s because it is.
If the amendment doesn’t provide a substantive policy framework for cannabis (which a ballot initiative cannot do), it will only serve to strengthen the illicit market at the expense of the legal one. Simply put, by deferring to a ballot measure, voters risk exacerbating the very problems they are trying to solve.
New Jersey has the opportunity to break from the pack of states with legal cannabis markets. We can create a market where patients and consumers can buy safe, reasonably priced products while simultaneously starving the illicit market. We have the benefit of history and position. We can learn from the mistakes other states have made.
For example, California, where voters legalized adult-use cannabis in 2016, has the world’s largest legal cannabis market but because it didn’t have the benefit of learning from the obstacles of many other states, it also has the world’s most robust black market for cannabis.
The clearest advantage to creating an adult-use market via legislation is that it encourages lawmakers to craft the policy framework needed before the law goes into effect.
New Jersey has two dwindling and precious advantages: an opportunity to incorporate best practices from other states that have already legalized adult-use cannabis, and a head start. States like Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania are breathing down the Garden State’s neck.
If New Jersey wants to help patients and incorporate the tax revenue for the benefit of its citizens and businesses, it must act now. The current legislative package contains crucial provisions that provide solutions for problems like a legacy of unfair drug enforcement and institutional racism, as well as sexism.
The state and its citizens risk losing all of this progress if the issue is tied to a ballot initiative.