New Jersey lawmakers are already working on enabling legislation ahead of a referendum on marijuana legalization, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) said during an NJ CAN roundtable Thursday.
The enabling legislation will largely resemble a legalization bill Democratic lawmakers tried to pass in March 2019, the senator said. That measure died after its backers failed to secure the 21 votes needed to pass it in the State Senate.
The similarities will almost certainly include the creation of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, a regulatory body that, under the 2019 bill, would license dispensaries, regulate marijuana sales and investigate and aid in the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses.
For any of that to matter, the referendum first needs to win approval.
That’ll likely happen. Polling over the last two years has consistently shown more than 60% of state residents support legalization. In some cases, most Republicans supported the measure.
But the pro-legalization camp still worries that ballot drop off could kill the referendum. The state has seen massive ballot drop off in previous years, sometimes as high as 50%.
There’s no clear indication how the state’s all-mail election will affect that dynamic. The legalization referendum and other ballot questions are on the back of mail-in ballots, and NJ CAN is focusing some of its resources on making sure voters know that.
“Make sure that you flip your ballot over,” ACLU NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said. “I’ve already heard from several people who submitted their ballots without having turned the page, and that’s something we need to avoid as much as possible.”
They’re also making policy pitches tailored to the disparate blocs that may support legalization.
For Democratic voters, the argument is based in social justice.
“The fact is that every week roughly, plus or minus, 600 New Jerseyans — 600 — the majority of whom are persons of color, will be arrested for marijuana possession and will have a criminal record that will hurt their prospects for getting a job, an education, housing, you name it,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.
Murphy, who promised to legalize recreational cannabis during his 2017 campaign, also pointed to the monetary benefits of legalization.
For one, he said, the state would save roughly $150 million it spends on enforcing marijuana laws.
The pro-cannabis camp is using those sorts of arguments — ones based on tax revenue and gains to the tourism industry driven by out-of-state marijuana users — to entice conservative voters to their side.
“When you start talking about the tax revenue, regardless of whether people believe in using cannabis for personal use or not, you can’t deny those facts,” cannabis attorney Bill Caruso, of Archer law, said. “We’re not getting any tax revenue out of the illicit market. We’re not creating any jobs right now.”
In at least some counties, Democratic organizations are putting their weight behind the legalization push.
In Union County, where Scutari is Democratic County Chairman, candidates have integrated the referendum into their platform, giving local voters reminders more personal than the ad buys and influence campaigns legalization backers have running on social media platforms.
“We’re trying to get the word out to our voters, to our constituents, to our committee people because there’s always a drop off on these questions anyway,” Scutari said. “Even when you go to the ballot box — they’re right there — people forget to vote for them, even if they’re in favor of them.”