Editor’s note: This is one of five states with cannabis legalization for medical or adult use on the ballot today.
New Jersey is set to become the most populous state in the northeast to legalize cannabis for adult use.
Voters passed Public Question 1, the Marijuana Legalization Amendment. Now, lawmakers will pass legislation to legalize the possession and use of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and regulate cultivation, processing, and sales of cannabis. Before today, eleven states and D.C. had already legalized cannabis for adult use.
Axel Owen, campaign manager for NJ CAN, told Cannabis Wire that “the win speaks for itself.”
“This is a mandate from the people New Jersey that they want to see a legalized cannabis market here, they want to see it done right, and they want to see it done quickly,” Owen said.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, polling was strong. And, days before Election Day, state records showed that legalization advocates pulled in more than $2 million in contributions. Top contributors included American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, and Weedmaps. Opponents of legalization raised less than $10,000.
Why did voters decide on legalization, and not lawmakers? Lawmakers voted in December, 49-21-1 in the Assembly and 24-16 in the Senate, to send legalization to voters.
“Putting the issue to a referendum is both sensible and equitable. While not our preferred method of legislating, public questions allow voters to affirm or deny massive shifts in public policy,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a statement at that time.
The December decision came after lawmakers failed in somewhat dramatic fashion last March to agree on legalization. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney said that lawmakers changing votes “was like Whac-A-Mole,” and that some lawmakers are “just philosophically opposed.”
“Legalization of marijuana will get passed one way or another. I might have underestimated the challenge in getting this passed. The governor made one hell of an effort himself and we’ll be back at this,” Sweeney said last March.
The legalization of cannabis for adult use in New Jersey is expected to accelerate action in neighboring states. Since last year, the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have all pushed for legalization.
In October 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo foreshadowed the hurdles that the northeast patchwork of cannabis laws could bring, hosting the Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit, during which elected officials discussed how northeastern states could take a “regional approach” to legalization.
During the summit, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told Cannabis Wire, and a small group of journalists, “The more coordinated and harmonious we can be, the better off we’ll all individually be. Obviously, we’d keep our own legislative reality. Your executive order authority is your own, but I’m optimistic we can do this in a way—this being both vaping and adult use of recreational marijuana—in a coordinated way.”
This year, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont gave his State of the State address, during which he emphasized the complicating regulatory factors that tiny states in the northeast have to contend with, as some states legalize, but others don’t.
“Like it or not, legalized marijuana is just a short drive away in Massachusetts. And New York is soon to follow,” Lamont said. “And I believe that a coordinated regional regulation is our best chance to protect public health by displacing illicit sellers and replacing them with trusted providers. And it’s an opportunity to right the wrongs of a war on drugs that disproportionately impacted our minority communities.”
When Cuomo gave his last budget address, reintroducing a legalization plan by budget in early January 2020, his office doubled down on that northeastern approach, emphasizing in a statement: “These efforts will be done in coordination with neighboring states Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”
Pennsylvania could be next, if lawmakers take up SB 350, a legalization bill. Though that appears unlikely, as the session ends on November 10 and Republican leadership have signaled their unwillingness to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Governor Tom Wolf has called for legalization as a tool to generate revenue amid the COVID-19 related economic downtown, and has repeatedly asked lawmakers to consider the policy shift.
Owen, the campaign manager for NJ CAN, thinks that New Jersey will be a catalyst in the northeast domino effect.
“The entire northeastern corridor is going to follow quickly behind, because of just how interconnected we are,” Owen said. “We do anticipate that this win in New Jersey is going to bring Pennsylvania and New York and Connecticut to the table and moving down that path toward legalization.”
On Friday, the medical society of New Jersey joined those in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Delaware, to urge caution against voters legalizing cannabis for adult use, or pushing for cannabis conversations through the lens of public health over potential economic relief.
“We appreciate the enormous challenges state policymakers face to address burgeoning budget deficits, but we strongly believe that further detailed research must be undertaken and assessed regarding the effects legalization of cannabis will have on important public health markers, such as emergency department visits and hospitalizations, impaired driving arrests, and the prevalence of psychiatric and addiction disorders,” the societies said in their statement.
New Jersey lawmakers passed a medical cannabis bill in 2009, but the program didn’t grow under former Governor Chris Christie. It started to take off under Governor Phil Murphy, and today, there are now more than 86,000 patients, 3,300 caregivers and 1,200 physicians enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program.
This story was updated at 10:46 p.m. eastern to include comments from Axel Owen, campaign manager for NJ CAN.