Rather than making the call themselves, New Jersey legislators left it up to voters on whether the state should legalize marijuana. Voters overwhelmingly approved the idea with 67 percent in favor of legal cannabis for adults 21 and older. The change will take effect on January 1, 2021, leaving lawmakers in a time crunch to hash out legislation to govern the new industry before legal sales can even start to begin.
New Jersey Lawmakers Proposed Marijuana Legalization to Voters
Unlike Colorado, California and so many states that have legalized, New Jersey’s Question One wasn’t a voter initiative. Instead, lawmakers put the question on the ballot, to determine if they should move forward or not. Governor Phil Murphy has been pushing for legalization for quite some time now. He even participated in fundraisers and appeared in ads to encourage voters to approve the measure.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” Murphy said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session, according to Marijuana Moment. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
The measure had the support of other pro-cannabis legislators including Senator Cory Booker and Senator Nick Scutari among others. Now, lawmakers must work quickly to get the framework for the policy change in place before the law changes at the start of the New Year.
What Happens Now that Voters Passed Question One?
Since this ballot measure was simply a referendum allowing voters the final say on legalization, there’s a lot to be done. Lawmakers must now pass a bill that will include a regulatory framework for the new industry and the new legality. As of right now, it is undetermined when it comes to limits for possession and home cultivation.
There are multiple bills being floated around. Some of which have been on the table since long before voters approved Question One. However, there were two enabling measures introduced only days after the election. Senate Bill 21 (S21) and Assembly Bill 21 (A21), while similar, have many differences. Unfortunately, that means negotiations need to happen before anything can be finalized and sent to Governor Murphy for signature.
“We’ve got to get this done by the end of the year,” the legislation’s lead sponsor, Sen. Nick Scutari (D), said at the Assembly panel hearing. “If we don’t, we’re going to run into a myriad of other problems.”
These are not the only bills being considered at this time. A decriminalization bill, S2535, was also recently advanced by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. That bill would legalize up to six ounces and make distribution of up to one ounce a civil penalty for a first offense.
Lawmakers Disagree, Negotiations Expected in Coming Weeks
So far, the two main bills have made it through preliminary votes. A21 was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee with a 7 to 4 vote. Meanwhile, S21 was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee with a vote of 8 to 3. However, even if both are passed, there are several key differences that will need to be settled before anything is final.
The main differences between the two bills lay in capping cultivation licenses, an additional excise tax, and where those taxes are going. S21 for example, calls for absolutely no caps on cultivation licenses. However, A21 would allow 37 (up from 28 in an older draft).
Taxes have also stood in the way of legalization in the state of New Jersey for a long time. In fact, disagreements over cannabis tax issues were one of the reasons Question One was put to voters in the first place. One concern is how much to tax cannabis sales. Too little and it won’t cover the costs of implementing the industry, too much and the black market will continue to thrive over the legal one. Another concern is what to do with that tax money once it starts coming in.
What Happens If Lawmakers Cannot Agree on a Bill?
New Jersey lawmakers are pushing to have a version of S21 or A21 passed before the end of the year. However, the holidays are a busy time, and if Senate and Assembly leaders cannot agree it may not happen. If lawmakers haven’t finalized a bill before the end of the year, cannabis will become legal with no restrictions on possession, cultivation, or distribution.
Knowing this could cause far more problems, lawmakers are likely to try to find middle ground as quickly as possible. Legalization has been a tough debate for the New Jersey legislature for years, so they let voters decide. Now it’s just a matter of the two sides being able to agree on how to implement the will of the voters and hoping they don’t take too long negotiating it. Leafwell will keep you updated every step of the way.