NJ on ‘Precipice’ of Legalizing Recreational Marijuana as Senate Backs 2020 Referendum

Jon Hurdle | December 17, 2019 | Social
Voters to decide after legislative effort failed; leading opponent says he will urge public to vote ‘no’
Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union), left, with Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) during a break in yesterday’s deliberations

New Jersey is now on the “precipice” of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, a leading advocate said, after lawmakers decided on Monday to ask voters to settle the issue.

After both houses approved a resolution by “supermajorities” of more than three-fifths to put the question on the ballot at the Nov. 2020 election, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) expressed confidence that the public will finally endorse a cause he has been pursuing for more than 16 years in the Legislature. The proposal also cleared the Assembly by a vote of 49 to 24 with one abstention. The large margins in favor mean lawmakers won’t have to debate the subject again before it goes to the voters.

Although a bill to legalize recreational marijuana failed earlier this year, Scutari said he believes there will be enough public support for a constitutional amendment to achieve the same thing.

“I think we’ll get to the same place that we need to be,” he said in an interview after the vote.

The Senate approved a concurrent resolution that would amend the state constitution to allow the growing, packaging, retail purchasing and consumption of cannabis by persons 21 years of age or older.

The amendment would also create a Cannabis Regulatory Commission which would decide how to tax the sale of the drug. The measure also proposed that municipalities may impose additional taxes of up to 2% of the retail price of cannabis if they are authorized by a new law to do so.

Steadfast pursuit, shifting attitudes

Scutari attributed the passage of the Senate bill on Monday to his own dogged pursuit of the issue, to shifting attitudes toward recreational marijuana, and to support from Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

And he said the decriminalization of the drug would remove what he called a “travesty of justice” which allows consumption of alcohol while imposing criminal penalties on people who possess small quantities of marijuana.

“One of the most important things we can do for our citizens is to get them out from under the hypocrisy and the drama of arrest for ingestion of marijuana,” he said.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who co-sponsored the resolution, said legalization would help to address an injustice that disproportionately affects communities of color.

“Legalization is a significant step in public policy that will have a real-life impact on social justice, law enforcement and the lives of people in communities throughout New Jersey,” Sweeney said in a statement. “With the public’s approval, we will be able to move forward to correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color.”

Sen. Ron Rice: ‘I will still fight’

But Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, voted against the resolution, and said he will argue against approval in the referendum because of what he sees as the social damage caused by cannabis.

“I will still fight to stop the referendum from passing because of … the negative impact of what’s happening in California and the other states right now,” he said in an interview. “The question is can we get to the mass of people and educate them.

“We should never do this but if we are going to do it, then we should let the people vote,” he said.

For Scutari, approval of the resolution was due in part to the support of Gov. Murphy who campaigned on legalization and appears to have decided that support for it would be politically popular.

“The Murphy administration has made a big impact. We wouldn’t be here without him having supported it,” Scutari said.

Attitudes in the Senate have also changed over the past two decades, allowing Monday’s vote, in contrast to widespread opposition to legalization when Scutari began his campaign more than 16 years ago.

“People said: ‘You’re a brave young legislator. You’ll have a short career down here with ideas like that,’” he said, recalling his early years in the Legislature. “Now we’re on the precipice of it being legalized.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin called the decision to put the question to the voters “both sensible and equitable.”

“The time to end the prohibition of adult-use cannabis is now,” Coughlin said in a statement. “The decision is now in the hands of the November 2020 electorate.”

Additional reporting by John Mooney.