Today in Trenton, the process to put a marijuana referendum on next year’s ballot begins in earnest. Two committees will consider a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for recreational use by adults 21 years and up.
Curiously, ballot measures in NJ originate in the statehouse where the legislature plays gatekeeper. A proposed referendum generally must pass muster in both houses in two consecutive sessions just to qualify the ballot, in this case, in December of 2020.
Amending NJ’s constitution to permit recreational cannabis seems like a blunt instrument to amend our state’s remorseless drug laws. And unlike most states, NJ’s referendum process feels like the opposite of people power. But lawmakers in Trenton weren’t up to the task.
So they passed the buck.
To find out we got here, let’s peek backwards, debunk some enduring myths, and then flesh out the real villains in this increasingly sorry saga.
It’s been widely reported here and elsewhere that, out on the campaign trail, Phil Murphy promised to legalize cannabis within 100 days of becoming governor of New Jersey.
After eight long years of Chris Christie’s reefer madness it was a message that many in NJ wanted to hear.
However there’s no original source citing Murphy’s pledge to legalize cannabis within 100 days. You’ll find countless reports citing other reports but none contained the alleged money quote from Murphy.
Likewise, there’s no video footage of Murphy promising to end prohibition so quickly while campaigning.
I’m convinced that’s because Murphy never actually said he’d legalize cannabis in 100 days or less. Presumably, if he made such an audacious promise, there’d be video footage from several angles. Including from his rivals who’d have the clip on a loop by now.
InsiderNJ contacted two high-ranking members of Murphy’s 2017 campaign squad who, on background, said they never heard such a promise. Both spent months with Murphy on the trail – long, 12 hour days – and neither recalled Murphy vowing to end cannabis prohibition so quickly.
They suggested the 100 days line has roots in Murphy’s promise to begin reforming New Jersey’s cannabis laws urgently, within the first 100 days.
Which is not the same thing as legalizing cannabis within 100 days of swearing in.
I regret propagating what feels like an urban legend, a myth that made it impossible for Governor Murphy to manage expectations on this very important issue.
The marijuana debate in Trenton highlights the NJGOP’s enduring detachment. Notwithstanding outgoing assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, not a single GOP legislator is willing to legalize cannabis by statute.
Trenton’s newest lawmaker is Senator Michael Tesa (R-Vineland.) It turns out, the NJGOP’s freshest face some very stale ideas.
“I’m 100% opposed to the legalization of marijuana,” said Testa. “I can tell you that as a criminal defense attorney, I’ve seen countless cases of men and women experimenting with recreational marijuana. Marijuana is a gate way drug.”
Yeah, a gateway to prison and criminal record.
So please remember Senator Testa’s exhausted clichés the next time a Republican promises to get the government out of your life.
But it’s not just the newbies. NJGOP veterans are facing backwards on this issue as well.
Tom Kean Jr is NJ’s Senate minority leader and a candidate for Congress. The son of a popular former governor, Kean is perhaps NJ’s youngest elder statesman. His NO vote on cannabis is a curious juxtaposition to his legislation permitting alcohol sales in small theaters.
“What better way to enhance the night-out experience than by sipping a cold drink while watching a new show?” Senator Kean mused, rhetorically.
I’m not here to drag Sen Kean’s bill because it might be smart policy on the merits. But Kean’s views on booze versus cannabis represent an incoherence that’s fairly typical among NJGOP circles.
Look, you only have to listen to NJ101.5 for like 5 minutes to learn that regular republican voters want to fix NJ’s marijuana laws.
But NJGOP lawmakers old and new continue to just say no.
The primary reason legalized marijuana hasn’t happened in NJ yet is because NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney failed to muster the votes in his own caucus and in his own back yard.
If the New Jersey Assembly voted to legalize marijuana right now, the bill would sail through. Not in the Senate. That makes the cluster of NO votes from South Jersey so conspicuous.
Namely we’re referring to Senators Beach, Cruz Perez, Madden, Addiego, Testa, and Brown, all reportedly NO votes on cannabis legalization. All but one (Brown/Testa) are George Norcross loyalists.
Everyone knows Sweeney and Norcross hate Governor Murphy. And, it would appear, they’re willing to sacrifice meaningful drug policy reforms just to prove it.
Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill has toiled for decades to fix our marijuana laws. When America’s first cannabis dispensaries were closed down back in 1998, he had the presence of mind to find a reporter before getting tossed out by the sheriff.