NJ Marijuana Legalization: 2020 Election Results

Eric Kiefer

This story was updated at 9:50 p.m.

NEW JERSEY — Polls have closed and ballots are being counted for Tuesday’s general election in New Jersey, which took place mostly via mail due to the coronavirus. As part of the election, Garden State residents voted on a ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana.

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With 3,647 of 6,348 precincts reported, here are the unofficial results, according to the Associated Press (AP):

  • Yes – 1,581,871

  • No – 770,081

Advocates have been pushing for legalization for years, pointing to long-running disparities in marijuana arrests and a potential windfall of tax revenue. Opponents have pushed back, alleging it would jeopardize public safety.

The issue regained the spotlight after Gov. Phil Murphy made it a cornerstone of his gubernational campaign in 2017. Since taking office, Murphy has vastly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program, earning praise from many cannabis advocates. But he hasn't been able to rally enough support in the Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana.

Lawmakers came close to a reaching an agreement last year, but fell about five votes short and decided to punt the decision to voters. READ MORE: NJ Voters Will Decide Whether To Legalize Marijuana

If voters approve the ballot question, it would amend the state constitution to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for people 21 and over. It would also legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of cannabis in a retail setting.

Passage of the amendment wouldn't affect the state’s regulation of medical cannabis and hemp.

Here’s Public Question 1, as it appears on the ballot:

“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.”

The amendment would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021. But state lawmakers and the Cannabis Regulatory Commission would still need to hammer out the finer points, such as how much marijuana people could legally possess and whether people will be allowed to grow cannabis at home.

Many experts estimate it would likely take at least a year and possibly longer before the first legal pot in New Jersey would be sold.

If New Jersey voters choose to legalize cannabis, it could also create a domino effect in the neighboring states of New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to Kris Krane, president of 4Front Ventures.

Krane, a founding member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a former executive member of NORML, said people from nearby states would flock to New Jersey to purchase legal cannabis that isn’t available to them at home.

That would mean two big victories for the Garden State, he says: tax revenue and jobs.

“Voters this November have the chance to make New Jersey the trendsetter for the region, and in the process, offset some of the recession-fueled budget shortfalls being seen in states around the country,” Krane told Patch.

Having a state legislature refer a measure to voters would be an unusual path to legalization, Ballotpedia says. The other 11 U.S. states that legalized marijuana did so via a ballot initiative process, where campaigns collected signatures to place the issue before voters.

RECENT POLLING

Fairleigh Dickinson University released a poll on Oct. 9 that said there was massive support for legalizing recreational weed in New Jersey.

According to researchers, 61 percent of likely voters said they planned to vote yes and 29 percent said they planned to vote no – a margin of nearly two to one. Learn more about the poll's methodology here.

“Public opinion on this issue has evolved considerably,” FDU poll director Krista Jenkins said.

420 LOBBYING

The ballot question has prompted a whopping $2.1 million in fundraising as of Oct. 20, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).

“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top 10 most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said.

“Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019," Brindle added. "So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”

HOW WOULD IT AFFECT THE ECONOMY?

Legalizing recreational cannabis could raise some big bucks for the state as prepares to borrow billions of dollars to help it weather the coronavirus pandemic, some experts said.

If passed, the public question would apply the state sales tax of 6.625 percent to recreational marijuana purchases. Local municipalities would be able to enact an additional sales tax up to 2 percent.

In 2017, Roseland-based law firm Brach Eichler estimated that if New Jersey embraced an “aggressive privatization” of the cannabis industry, it could bring up to $1 billion to the state within the first year of legalization.

A 2019 report from the Office of Legislative Services estimated that New Jersey could generate revenues up to $126 million annually from a sales and use tax once a cannabis market is established. Some advocates have argued that the total could be even higher, setting their own estimates at roughly $300 million.

HOW WOULD IT AFFECT CRIMINAL JUSTICE?

It’s unclear what the amendment would mean for thousands of people who have criminal records for marijuana offenses in New Jersey, or who are currently in prison for low-level weed possession.

Under the current state law, marijuana possession offenders can be hit with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Every year, police make over 30,000 marijuana-related arrests in New Jersey — among the most of any state in the nation, Garden State NORML recently reported.

Last year, the ACLU of New Jersey released a report that said Black residents had nearly a 3-to-1 higher chance of being arrested on a marijuana charge in New Jersey than whites in 2017.

The ACLU-New Jersey says that the collateral damage from a marijuana arrest can be dire:

  • Jail

  • Loss of one's job

  • A criminal record for at least three years

  • Driver's license suspension

  • Potential consequences for one's immigration status, financial aid eligibility, and access to public housing

  • Loss of the ability to adopt children

The cost can run steep for people like Ahmad Reed, a New Jersey resident arrested for possessing eight bags of weed in 2015. Reed – a husband and father – said that he's struggled to find decent work ever since, at times working temporary jobs that pay as little as $40 a day.

"My ability to support my family has been shattered," Reed said. "It's hard to move forward."

In all, New Jersey spends about $147 million a year on the legal processing of marijuana possession, according to a September email from Gov. Murphy.

“Using our public safety dollars for marijuana arrests doesn't make us any safer,” Murphy said. “By legalizing adult-use marijuana, we can free up police resources to focus on serious, violent and unsolved crimes, and reinvest those saved dollars into social services.”

LEGALIZING WEED: THE DEBATE CONTINUES

Marijuana legalization still has its opponents in New Jersey.

In January, the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police said if pot becomes legal, it would “impact public safety” and cause “quality of life issues.”

Other arguments posed by the group include:

INCREASED POTENCY “It is important to dispel the belief that marijuana is a ‘benign’ drug, as many seem to believe. Newly developed strains of marijuana are far more potent than what people were smoking in the past. An exponential increase in the level of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, has risen from 3.7 percent to more than 20 percent; some cannabis concentrates even contain close to 100 percent THC. States where recreational marijuana has been legalized have seen a dramatic increase in children and teenagers receiving emergency room treatment for marijuana toxicity.”

DRIVING RISKS “Marijuana use by drivers puts everyone at risk. According to a recent AAA report, many marijuana users mistakenly believe that marijuana does not impair their ability to operate a vehicle. In states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, such as Washington and Colorado, one in four drivers admit to driving within one hour of using marijuana. Consider, there are 6,628,080 vehicles registered in New Jersey that travel over 39,000 public roadways, averaging 210 million travel miles per day, and the potentially devastating effects that drug impaired drivers can have on our highways.”

“It is unrealistic to believe there will not be unintended consequences if recreational marijuana is legalized, as residents in the states where it has been legalized have come to realize,” the group says. “Nor should it be assumed the promises made by those pushing so diligently towards legalization will be totally fulfilled. The pot of gold will be shared by only a few.”

According to the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, while marijuana legalization has been promoted as a public health measure to decrease drug-related crime and a potential source of tax revenue, these claims haven’t been validated.

“Legalization of cannabis will reduce the public perception of its risks and increase the social acceptability of using cannabis,” the group adds.

The Republican County Chairmen’s Association has also gone on record in opposition to the ballot question.

“Pro-pot legislators may not care about the damage that legal pot will do to our children, families, schools and neighborhoods, but as an organization deeply dedicated to promoting a healthy and safe New Jersey, my chairmen colleagues and I felt obligated to speak out against the ballot question,” Chairperson Jose Arango stated last month.

But in the weeks before the election, a rising tide of officials joined a chorus of advocates calling for full legalization.

In September, Gov. Murphy urged residents to vote yes on legalizing marijuana, saying that it would correct social injustices, spur “massive economic development,” create jobs and form a new tax revenue for the state.

The governor added that “legalization will not be the end of the story” and that there’s more work to do, particularly in expunging past marijuana-related offenses. But for now, a yes vote would be a big win for the state, he said.

“This our chance to make history,” Murphy said.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who has introduced a federal bill to legalize recreational marijuana, has also supported the ballot question in his home state.

“The time to legalize is now,” Booker said. “Let's get this done.”

According to New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform, for the vast majority of people who consume marijuana today, the greatest harms associated with their consumption aren't health-related ... they're the criminal and civil penalties that can cost them their jobs, housing or education.

"Using the criminal justice system to deal with marijuana misuse has failed," the group says. "It’s time to shift to a public health approach."

BlueWaveNJ wrote that the group supports the legalization of marijuana for several reasons, including:

  • "Prohibition has not worked and wastes public resources"

  • "Arrested marijuana offenders prevents the police from focusing on real crimes"

  • "Small marijuana charges have destroyed the lives of far too many Americans for no reason"

  • "The rules are disproportionally enforced against minorities"

  • "Legalization allows for regulation"

Other activists and advocates have pointed out that the fight for marijuana justice won't end in November, even if New Jersey legalizes weed.

"As November’s ballot measure nears, it is important to recognize that the legalization measure does not address any aspect of restorative justice," a coalition of 14 Garden State progressive groups recently said in a joint petition.

"There are no expungements, no releases, and no racial justice provisions," the petition reads. "It is unacceptable and cruel to leave people in jail and with records as the people of New Jersey celebrate the legalization of cannabis."

For full coverage of the 2020 election in New Jersey, go here: New Jersey Elections 2020

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This article originally appeared on the Montclair Patch