Ballot question #1: Legalize marijuana use for adults in NJ? The case for and against

Gov. Phil Murphy, other supporters say regulated marijuana sales could generate much-needed tax revenue
Credit: (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
File photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles, California, where recreational sales are legal.

The first of three public questions that appear on this year’s ballot asks voters if they want New Jersey to join the ranks of nearly a dozen states where it’s legal for adults to use marijuana recreationally.

Among those who vocally support legalization in New Jersey is Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat who made the issue part of his campaign platform in 2017. Murphy and other legalization advocates have argued that regulated marijuana sales could generate much-needed tax revenue for a state budget that’s been hit hard by revenues losses triggered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Legalization supporters have also been making a social-justice case, citing studies that show Blacks and Latinos don’t use marijuana more than whites, but are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and suffer long-term consequences as a result.

The latest polls suggest a majority of New Jersey voters support legalization, by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

Still, the proposed policy change has a fair share of vocal opponents in the state.

Among them are police chiefs, who have raised concerns about impaired driving. Others have argued the social-justice issues that supporters of legalization have pointed to won’t be solved by simply legalizing marijuana use.

And  officials in nearly 50 communities across the state have already enacted ordinances that would ban sales within their borders even if voters approve the ballot question, according to a list maintained by the group Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot, which opposes legalization.

The legalization question is listed as Public Question No. 1, and it appears with two other public questions on the back of mail-in ballots that were distributed to millions of voters in New Jersey earlier this month.

Only for those who are at least 21

The first part of Public Question No. 1 asks voters if they would like to rewrite the state Constitution to make a form of marijuana known as cannabis available to be consumed legally in New Jersey by adults who are at least 21 years old.

The question goes on to explain that, if legalized, oversight of the recreational marijuana industry in New Jersey would be delegated to a panel called the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which was established in law last year and will also supervise the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

The question also calls for recreational marijuana products to be subject to the state sales tax, which is currently set at 6.625%, if it is approved. Answering “yes” would also authorize municipalities to charge their own local taxes on cannabis products sold within their borders.

While financial projections for New Jersey’s budget have varied as the debate over marijuana legalization has played out in recent years, analysts at the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services issued a formal fiscal estimate late last year that assumed up to $126 million in annual tax revenue could eventually be generated by legalizing recreational marijuana use.

However, the OLS analysts also warned annual revenues would likely be lower “in the early years as the market develops.” Further clouding the picture for the forecasters are issues related to “market saturation and legalization by neighboring states (that) could negatively affect initial and future revenue collections,” according to the OLS estimate.

Still, a recent member poll conducted by the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants found nearly 70% of those surveyed said the sale of legalized marijuana products would boost the state’s overall economy.

Murphy and other supporters of legalization have also argued there could be significant savings from legalizing marijuana, estimating more than $100 million that is spent annually in New Jersey on processing those who are arrested for possessing marijuana could be redirected to other purposes.

Debating social justice

Among those backing legalization on social-justice grounds are a number of prominent clergy members who’ve thrown their support behind a pro-legalization effort that’s been organized as the NJ CAN 2020 coalition.

“Outdated cannabis laws have held our communities back for far too long. One cannabis arrest under current law can make it difficult for someone to find a job or housing for the rest of their life, and I’ve seen this happen to too many people,” said the Rev. Kenneth Clayton, senior pastor at St. Luke Baptist Church in Paterson.

“Our laws disproportionately affect communities of color and legalization has the potential to remove unfairly harsh punishments now suffered by entire families,” Clayton said.

But also raising social-justice concerns have been those who would prefer decriminalizing marijuana instead of making its consumption legal. Under most of those proposals, possessing small amounts of marijuana would result in civil penalties such as fines instead of criminal charges.

Longtime Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) has been among the biggest supporters of decriminalization even as Democratic colleagues and allies like Murphy have pushed for legalization. Rice, a prime sponsor of decriminalization legislation, has been sounding alarms in recent years about the potential impact of outright legalization on communities of color in New Jersey, including his hometown of Newark.

“I have fought long and hard for decriminalization to correct an unjust system that causes Blacks and people of color to be arrested and incarcerated at three to four times the rate of whites for the same marijuana offense,” Rice said in a statement last month that renewed calls for immediate action on decriminalization.

Concerns about corporate involvement

Will Jones from the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana also raised concerns about significant corporate investment in the legalization industry, including by cigarette and alcohol companies, during an interview with NJ Spotlight News earlier this month.

“When these same players are just pivoting to a new product line, why do we think it’s going to have, all of a sudden, a different impact, a beneficial impact, suddenly, in communities of color when that hasn’t happened in so many past years?” Jones said.

And among the arguments made on its website, the Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot organization says legalizing marijuana would do little to support the overall state budget since the $126 million in annual revenue projected by the OLS amounts to just a fraction of New Jersey’s $40 billion in annual spending.

“Reasonable people would conclude that the new tax revenue is not worth the damage that legal pot would wreak on the health and safety of New Jersey’s residents,” the website says.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission reported earlier this month that the Don’t Let NJ Go to Pot group had spent nearly $6,000 to rally support for voting “no” on the legalization ballot question. But that spending was far outpaced by the NJ CAN 2020 coalition, which had shelled out nearly $440,000 in support of legalization, according to the ELEC report.

If legalization wins approval from New Jersey voters, the marijuana policy change would not take effect right away because the resolution that state lawmakers approved last year — which put the issue on the ballot — calls for legalization to be delayed until Jan. 1, 2021

Experts have also cautioned it could take time for lawmakers to draft and approve regulations, and for products to come to market under those regulations. And no matter what the outcome is in New Jersey, marijuana would still remain a controlled substance in the eyes of the federal government.