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Senate President Steve Sweeney appears to have the votes for marijuana decriminalization.
Senate President Steve Sweeney

Lawmakers to introduce marijuana referendum amendment

Legislature gives up plans for legalization through legislation

By Nikita Biryukov, November 18 2019 3:32 pm

Senate President Steve Sweeney and State Sen. Nicholas Scutari announced they would introduce a bill to put recreational marijuana on the 2020 ballot Monday.

“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the two said in a joint statement. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said the legislature’s lower chamber was on board with the Senate’s announcement.

The announcement is likely the final nail in the coffin for lawmaker’s hopes to legalize through legislative action rather than referendum.

A legalization effort was scuttled earlier this year after Democrats failed to whip enough votes to pass the measure in the Senate.

“We made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively, but we recognize that the votes just aren’t there,” the senators said. “We respect the positions taken by legislators on what is an issue of conscience.”

To get the referendum on the ballot for next year’s election, lawmakers will have to pass the bill twice by simple majority, first before the end of the year and again the next year.

Under the measure, recreational marijuana sales would be subject to the state sales tax, and the marijuana market would be regulated by a recreational cannabis commission, which would be established by other legislation.

It’s unclear what will happen to an expungement bill that was once tied to marijuana legalization.

“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” the senators said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said that the state’s “current marijuana laws have failed every test of social justice and that the right course is to legalize its use by adults has not changed.”

“I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue. However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November.” said Murphy.  “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”

This story was updated at 5:42 PM with comment from Murphy.

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