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Gov. Phil Murphy is calling on voters say yes to a ballot question to legalize marijuana, hoping New Jersey will “make history” and become the first state in the region have a legal weed market.
The governor appeared Thursday afternoon in a virtual panel with members of NJ CAN 2020, a coalition of activists, doctors, lobbyists and business interests that launched earlier this year to campaign in favor of the ballot question. State Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, who has long advocated for legalization, appeared on the panel as well.
The campaign and Murphy have highlighted racial justice issues as reasons to legalize. Police in New Jersey arrest some 100 people a day for marijuana-related offenses. And Black people are charged 3.5 times more often than white people, despite similar rates of use, studies show.
“The facts are on our side,” Murphy said. “The fact is that the current marijuana laws stifle both social justice and economic development.”
NJ CAN 2020 formed earlier this year, but the coronavirus outbreak soon after upended the election. Instead of holding events and door knocking, much of the campaign work has gone virtual.
Murphy himself campaigned for governor in 2017 on the promise of bringing legal weed to the Garden State. But after several attempts, the state Legislature fell short of the votes needed to pass a bill. They moved to put the issue on the 2020 ballot instead last fall.
Murphy said he came to change his opinion on cannabis prohibition in recent years after learning about the high costs of enforcing marijuana laws, and the outsized impact on communities of color.
“I’m a father of four, I did not get to this overnight,” he said. “You add all that up, there’s no denying that this is the right thing to do.”
Murphy and activists are also encouraging voters to remember to turn their ballots over to find the question. With most of the state voting by mail for the first time, some worry voters will miss the question entirely.
Even if voters pass the question, as polls indicated they are poised to do, a switch will not flip. The state Legislature must still pass legislation that will guide the industry.
Scutari, who sponsored the past legislation seeking to establish a legal industry, said he and other lawmakers are working to introduce a bill following a majority yes on the question. He said it will share many similarities to the previous bill that nearly passed the Legislature.
“I feel confident that this ballot measure is going to pass,” he said Thursday. “When we had prohibition of alcohol a century ago, all it did was create crime. But this type of prohibition of marijuana is rooted in racism.”
Scutari has held off on supporting decriminalization of marijuana, which would levy fines rather than arrests for those in possession of weed. Both the state Assembly and state Senate introduced bills that would end such arrests in June but neither has moved through the Senate.
Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, has demanded Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Scutari, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, schedule a decriminalization bill he sponsored for a hearing.
Rice has long opposed marijuana legalization but wants to pass a decriminalization bill to end arrests of Black New Jerseyans. Scutari has said he does not want decriminalization efforts to undermine the long road to legalization.
“Some people have been disingenuous now talking about moving forward with decriminalization to try to scuttle the issue,” he said Thursday, before saying he would support decriminalization if enabling legislation is not ready following the ballot question’s passage, or if a majority of voters do not say yes to it.
Massachusetts became the first state to legalize marijuana on the East Coast via a ballot question in 2016. But pro-marijuana interests in New Jersey still hope the Garden State can beat its neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania, drawing tourism from those along its borders.
While it’s unclear how soon the state could see the economic benefits of legalization, some have estimated a legal weed industry in New Jersey could garner hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually. And activists say the state could save some $150 million in law enforcement costs spent enforcing current marijuana laws each year.
“We can’t fail, folks. We’ve got to make sure that this passes,” Murphy said. “And it will transform our state. We will do this responsibly. We’ll do this the right way.”
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