Will New Jersey become next state to fully legalize marijuana? It’s one of four that could take the step this year. On November 3, New Jersey voters will decide on Question 1, a constitutional amendment to legalize for adults over 21. The result will have an enormous impact in a state that arrests about 100 people every day on marijuana charges.
The New Jersey legislature—having failed to pass a legalization bill two years in a row—voted in December 2019 to put the question directly to voters this year. Question 1 would legalize the cultivation, processing and retail sale of marijuana, taking effect on January 1, 2021. The state’s existing medical marijuana regulatory board would assume responsibility for regulating recreational marijuana.
Question 1 would additionally collect a 6.625 percent state sales tax on marijuana sales, and local governments could be authorized to collect an additional 2 percent sales tax. The amendment does nothing else besides this, and the state legislature and regulatory board would then need to pass and implement additional regulation governing the new industry.
Legalization advocacy group NJ CAN 2020—a coalition including the ACLU, the NAACP and medical and cannabis industry representatives—kicked off a voter education campaign on September 10. Given the pandemic, it’s focused on phone and digital organizing, including virtual events and conferences, to reach voters.
The challenges include not just informing voters about the ballot initiative and its merits, but also helping them understand how to cast the mail-in ballots necessitated by the pandemic. “That’s what’s going to be very different about this campaign,” Jessica Gonzalez of Minorities for Medical Marijuana told NJ.com. “There’s not just the aspect of ‘this is what cannabis legalization is going to bring us,’ but how to correctly vote for it.”
The coalition is making a racial and social justice argument for legalization. “The ACLU recommends not only legalizing marijuana use and possession, but we also are recommending ending the enforcement of marijuana possession and distribution, ending racial profiling by police, eliminating consent searches, ending the practice of using raw numbers of stops, citations, summonses, arrests as metrics to measure law enforcement productivity and efficiency,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the ACLU of NJ.
In 2017, police arrested over 34,000 people for marijuana possession in New Jersey, and another 3,100 people for sales. That’s about 100 people arrested every single day. Nationally, New Jersey ranks third for total marijuana arrests, behind only New York and Texas. In arrests per capita it also ranks third, behind only Wyoming and South Dakota.
Marijuana arrests in New Jersey target Black, Latinx and other racial minority groups. Black people are three times as likely as whites to be arrested, despite similar rates of use. They are also vastly overrepresented in the state’s prison system (for any offense), where 12 times as many Black people are incarcerated as whites—a higher disparity than any other state.
The state will be automatically sending all registered voters a prepaid mail-in ballot. But it has already encountered many difficulties this year in getting mail-ins counted accurately, with a significant number of ballots in spring primary elections rejected for technical reasons. That’s a worrying reality for legalization advocates—despite an April poll from Monmouth University that showed 61 percent voter support for legalization.
Elected Republicans in the state are coming out firmly against the measure. On September 8, the Republican County Chairman’s Association, representing local and county Republican politicians, unanimously voted to oppose Question 1. The chairman’s head, Jose Arango of Hudson County, argued that the amendment is too brief and doesn’t specify how marijuana would be regulated. State lawmakers are already too overburdened with responding to COVID-19 to start creating new marijuana rules, he argued.
In heavily Republican Ocean County, the county board also voted unanimously against the measure. “Recreational (marijuana), we feel, can add to a lot of other issues,” said County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines. “That it is a drug that will just lead others to go further into other drug addiction … It’s detrimental to the people of New Jersey.”
The NJ voter registration deadline is October 13. Early voting begins September 19 and runs through Election Day on November 2. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked and sent via USPS by November 3, and must be received by November 10 to be counted. Ballots not postmarked must be sent by 8 pm, November 5.