NJ lawmakers set sights on getting legalized pot question before the public

With prospects rapidly fading for passage of a law legalizing recreational marijuana, state legislators who support the idea have turned their attention instead to the mechanics of Plan B: Getting the issue before voters next November in a statewide referendum.

Required hearings were held Thursday on the bill that authorizes the ballot question. The Assembly Oversight Committee convened in the morning and the Senate Commerce Committee in the afternoon.

Those who spoke in favor of the public question — and that was most of those who testified — lamented the fact that lawmakers had failed to get the votes needed to do it themselves. As an alternative, they said, a voter-approved constitutional amendment would have to suffice.

“In the wisdom of some key philosophers of our time, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,’” said Bill Caruso of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “I will love this constitutional amendment, but we’ve got work to do to convince the public to do that.”

As written in the bill, the ballot question reads: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’? Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis. The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Cannabis products would be subject to the State sales tax. If authorized by the Legislature, a municipality may pass a local ordinance to charge a local tax on cannabis products.”

Despite multiple attempts, the Legislature’s attempts to enact legislation approving recreational pot failed to garner sufficient votes, most recently just after the election. Among the opponents was state Sen. Ron Rice, the Essex County Democrat and head of the Legislative Black Caucus, who prefers decriminalization, fearing wholesale legalization would hurt inner city neighborhoods more than it would help.

Among those who spoke in favor of legalization was Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the state arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said legislative inaction has perpetuated a status quo that is unacceptable.

She also urged lawmakers to amend the stop gap decriminalization bill put forth by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, calling it flawed.

“Remove all civil penalties from her decriminalization bill, to explicitly decriminalize paraphernalia and explicitly state that the personal possession of cannabis is a non-arrestable offense. We urge the Legislature to raise the amount allowed for personal possession to 100 grams,” she said.

Also on hand were opponents of legalization, who said that access to marijuana is a danger to society.

“We know that the reason behind this is because all the politicians are going to get all the money from all the blue suits that are behind me and work for all these organizations who think this is wonderful, and they’re going to donate to their campaign,” said Barbara Eames of Morris Patriots, a group that among other things favors limited government. “This is not about what’s good for children; it’s not about what’s good for people. It’s what is good for politicians and their campaigns.”

At the afternoon session before the Commerce Committee in the Legislature’s upper house, the man who started the legalization discussion almost a decade ago seemed resigned to its current course toward a referendum, but not fearful of its ultimate fate.

“This was our decision jointly — myself, one of the principles who made the decision. We could not garner the necessary legislative support,” said Union County Democratic Sen. Nick Scutari. “This is the next best option. So assuming that polling data is accurate, we shouldn’t have any problem getting it passed in November.”

In order to get the question on the ballot in 2020, the referendum legislation needs to pass by a 60% supermajority in both houses during this session. Late in the day, Senate President Steve Sweeney said he thought the votes were there to get it posted on Monday’s agenda for the Senate.

The referendum could also be approved by a simple majority of lawmakers in two successive years.

“I think there are enough votes between Republicans and Democrats to do that,” he said. “I think there’s a possibility, because even a lot of people that were opponents were fine with it being on the ballot.”

Polls have shown that as many as 60% of New Jersey voters favor legalized access to marijuana, not just those with a prescription under the state’s medical marijuana program. But observers note that any time voters get involved the outcome is unpredictable.