Photo via Phil Murphy
Governor-Elect Phil Murphy made cannabis legalization a mainstream issue in his campaign to replace incumbent prohibitionist Chris Christie in New Jersey. Having pledged to "legalize marijuana so police can focus resources on violent crimes," Murphy has advocated for legalization on multiple counts, and one of his campaign promises was not only to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, but to do so within the first 100 days of his administration. But now that he’s won the election, is it actually possible for Murphy to guarantee such a bold move?
Unlike states such as California that can legalize cannabis by popular vote through a public ballot initiative, New Jersey must rely on its legislature to change policy. Their legislative period lasts two years, with the next session commencing in January.
Democrats in the legislature have already introduced bills aiming to tax and regulate adult-use marijuana. If and when such legislation passes, the state's market is predicted to be worth more than $1 billion.
The legalization bill on the table right now is S3195, sponsored by state Senator Nicholas Scutari. Stephen Sweeney, the state senate’s president, has already promised to pass the bill within the first three months of Murphy's administration (assuming it arrives at his desk in time). Between January and the end of March, both houses of the state legislature will hold public hearings; hear out the concerns of lobbyists, opposition, and supporters; and at the end of it all, they'll vote. If it passes, the bill heads to Murphy, who's already promised to sign it.
While Murphy can't actually control whether the bill will make it to his desk, experts remain optimistic.
The biggest question is going to be not whether to legalize, but how, says Evan Nison, executive director of New Jersey NORML. "That will have to come out of the sausage-making process, and testimony about the best [and] worst practices [in cannabis regulation] from other states. That's the question," he says. "In terms of how feasible it is politically, the people want it and the majority of the legislature wants it." The most recent polling indicates that nearly 60 percent of New Jersey voters favor legalization. The bill won't have unanimous support, Nison predicts, but he doubts any faction or person can stop it single-handedly.
"The biggest risk is disagreement," says Nison. While New Jersey's movement to legalize cannabis isn’t very fractured — especially in contrast to larger states (remember when Prop 19 failed in California?) — some proponents of legalization may debate over the details, like whether or not to allow home grows. A previous iteration of the bill disallowed it, but only recently has that restriction been removed.
"Home growing is the grassroots of our industry," says Brandon Chewey, founder of Shoreganix, a pro-cannabis advocacy group in the state. "New Jersey is the Garden State and we wouldn't be allowed home grows? We're fighting for it. The legislation could be bought by special interest groups, and that's what we're trying to avoid within the cannabis industry. If they're not good and for the people, we could be looking at another reenactment of the War on Drugs."
So part of the risk of legalizing could be that a shoddy bill passes which doesn’t equally serve interests both within and outside the cannabis industry — that is if pro-legalization efforts don't argue with each other to the point of killing a bill altogether. Luckily, the two-year legislative session means that by the time it ends, cannabis legalization is nearly guaranteed.
Though some also remain skeptical that it will happen within the first 100 days of Murphy's administration as promised. "I don't believe there's enough support in the legislature, so it seems unlikely," says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Yet there is some strong pushback inside the legislature from State Senator Joseph Pennacchio and Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, who've come out in opposition to legalization. Bucco is already proposing legislation that would require blood samples from those accused of drug-impaired driving. 'It is harder to tell if people are driving high from pot than if they are drunk on alcohol," according to one op-ed from NorthJersey.com. While a blood test doesn't indicate whether someone was impaired at the time they were driving, the op-ed doesn't endorse the plan, so much as it supports the Republican legislators' call for greater debate in deciding the issue. Pennacchio says he fears not only an uptick in traffic fatalities, but also a rise in crime:
“I urge Governor-elect Murphy and my colleagues in the Legislature not to get starry-eyed with promises of safer streets and good economic times. That is a fantasy,” he said. “The reality is that crime, traffic fatalities, and homelessness are all on the rise in Colorado and the state is far from solving its fiscal problems. The reasons not to rush into legalizing weed in New Jersey are far too numerous to ignore.”
MERRY JANE reached out to legislators Pennacchio and Bucco for comment to no response.
Scotti, however, remains confident that a lack of education, rather than a rise in political factions within the legislature, is the main obstacle to swift legalization. "I just think it's a process of educating legislators about the issue and how [legalization] has worked in other states. I do believe we can eventually get there," she says.
It's just a matter of building enough support within the legislature, and that takes time, Scotti says. As expected, law enforcement will likely lobby against the bill, as well as anti-legalization groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which launched a New Jersey-specific campaign after November’s election (MERRY JANE also contacted SAM for comment to no response). And because Governor Christie had vowed to veto any legalization bill that could or would have arrived at his desk, legislators weren't necessarily focused on the issue or educating themselves about it.
"Now people have a lot of questions about how it would work, questions about what legislators and the public have done in other states," says Scotti. California's legalization model is the gold standard, she adds, with regard to issues like racial equity and supporting communities devastated by the drug war. "We want to make sure the [cannabis] industry reflects the diversity of the state of New Jersey. At this point it's going to be a process of negotiation to get the best bill possible," says Scotti. "There's a lot of momentum, and the support is just building. I don't think it's where it needs to be to do this within three months, but I think doing it within a year is a possibility."