Bipartisan bill would put legal marijuana question to voters

Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi says voters should decide whether New Jersey legalizes recreational marijuana. She’s sponsoring a bill to put a referendum question on the November ballot along with Sen. Ron Rice, a Democrat, in a process they hope will inform residents.

“What is recreational marijuana? What does it mean for communities? What can people do if they pass a bill? What can local government do with that? And then, once you educate them, it should go to referendum,” said Rice.

A recent Monmouth University Poll said 62 percent of New Jerseyans favor legalizing recreational cannabis, so it seems an odd gamble for both lawmakers — who actually oppose legalization — to promote a ballot question that would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana. But Rice believes the Monmouth poll question didn’t clearly explain the difference between recreational and medical weed.

“So once you do that, I’m convinced the people would say no on the legalization of recreational marijuana,” Rice said.

Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray says the sponsors’ tactic might work because support softens when people get more details.

“Sponsors of this idea, putting it on a referendum, feel that if they can get a public debate going around a referendum, that they would probably be able to defeat it as more details came out. And so there’s nothing in the poll that suggests that they’re wrong. They might in fact be able to do that,” Murray said.

The legislators say they got the idea for a ballot question from students at Ramsey High School who studied the effects of legalizing recreational cannabis on issues like tax rates, auto insurance costs and traffic safety. They found an uninformed public.

“Putting it to a vote would give them time to be informed, but also make them more inclined to look up this information, try to figure it out, and it would force the government to inform the public,” said Ramsey High School senior Alyssa Fico.

“We learned that 10 states had passed recreational marijuana, and nine of those states had put it up to referendum and let the people’s voices be heard,” said senior Christian Doherty.

“What they’ve come up with, they’re actually making an impact for their communities and their state. And that’s anything we could wish for as an educator,” said teacher Alexis Jacobsen.

The governor opposes a ballot question. His spokesman said in a statement, Murphy ” … believes that legalizing adult-use marijuana should occur through the legislative process. He looks forward to continuing the productive discussions with the Legislature and building on the recent progress they have made together.”

Legislative leaders concur. For now, Democrats have agreed on a bill to tax recreational weed sales, but are still struggling for consensus on other aspects of legalization. Pointing to the recent ballot war over casinos outside of Atlantic City, Murray agreed any weed referendum would unleash a mega bankrolled battle for public opinion.

“We’re going to see a lot more money coming in on both sides — folks who have a personal interest in this, a business interest, you know, pharmaceutical companies, all sorts of things would probably get involved,” Murray said.

“If we put this as a ballot referendum type of initiative, let the airwaves, let the radio, let the information come out so that people can start doing their own research as to whether or not this makes sense for our state,” said Schepisi.

Right now, Democrats don’t have the votes to pass a bill legalizing recreational weed. A referendum question would need legislative approval by early August to get on the November ballot.