What Happened to Adult-Use Legalization in New Jersey?

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The path to adult-use legalization in New Jersey began with so much promise. Phil Murphy swept to victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial race in 2017 while promising to fight for adult-use marijuana legalization.

If you have followed events from that point, either in print here at The Marijuana Times or on our video news show, then you know how long of a process it has been. There was a great deal of back and forth between the governor and the legislature, ultimately ending in a failure to get the legislation through the statehouse and to the governor.

“So far it has been pretty disappointing to see long-time legislators failing to deliver their promise to end prohibition,” Chris Goldstein, an activist, writer and educator from Philadelphia told The Marijuana Times. “In 2016, at the Democratic National Convention, the party passed a platform stance called ‘A Pathway to Legalization’. But the machine Democrats of New Jersey have put up nothing but roadblocks ever since. In some ways we can’t expect Trenton to have the courage to regulate adult-use cannabis when no other state legislature has taken that plunge yet. NJ is rarely the first penguin on any progressive issue.”

Compounding the problem, according to Chris, “is that New Jersey’s marijuana possession arrests are increasing exponentially, with more than 32,000 per year at last report.”

So what happens now? Currently, the plan seems to be for the legislature to focus on expanding medical marijuana access in the state while kicking the can that is recreational legalization down the road to voters in the form of a referendum in 2020.

“The ballot option is another cry-wolf from legislators,” Chris said. “Unlike Colorado, California or Massachusetts, the good old Garden State does not have a direct-to-law ballot process available to voters. Here, the legislature can send a question to voters, then – even if it’s approved at the polls – the legislature has to pass a law…and they don’t actually have to complete the process. Really, a non-binding ballot question would push back a legislative vote until 2022.”

So is that it? Is something that started with so much hype going to wither on the vine, as the saying goes? Chris told us that “local advocates are asking NJ Attorney General Grewal to enact a suspension on all marijuana possession prosecutions until the elected politicians take definitive action”, but “sadly, even that move would not stop police from their daily harassment and discrimination of cannabis consumers.”

One positive that Chris sees from a possible ballot question in 2020 is that it could bring out a lot of voters for more progressive Democrat candidates statewide, enabling them to push out the entrenched incumbents who have been so vocal against legalization.

In the end, New Jersey is a warning to states like New York and Illinois. Just because a state is heavily-populated and is considered a solid “blue” state, it doesn’t necessarily translate into an easy road for adult-use legalization. Once legalization is put into the hands of legislators, it’s a whole new ballgame.

With the number of states that give voters petition access to the ballot box that have not yet legalized cannabis dwindling, things will only get more difficult. Is this where momentum for marijuana law reform on the state level will grind to a halt? Will it take something like federal legalization to finally break the logjam?

Time will tell, but so will the efforts of advocates all around the country.

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