Here’s what’s next for New Jersey’s budding cannabis industry

New Jersey voters approved a referendum legalizing marijuana 2 to 1. But that does not mean that those 21 or older can indulge just yet.

A vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace

In this April 15, 2019, file photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Now that New Jersey voters told officials to legalize recreational marijuana – 2 to 1 – the next phase of bringing the “adult cannabis market” to the state begins.

Suffice to say, don’t light up just yet.

The new constitutional amendment permitting recreational pot does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2021.

In an interim guidance to prosecutors and law enforcement, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote that the amendment “neither legalized, nor decriminalized, the sale or possession of “unregulated’ marijuana.”

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“The possession of marijuana outside New Jersey’s medical cannabis program remains illegal under existing New Jersey laws,” he added.

Grewal also noted that legislation is required to set regulations, establish legal amounts and “lawful locations” where it can be sold, possessed and used.

He also encouraged officers and prosecutors to exercise “their broad discretion when handling low-level marijuana offenses,” consistent with previous guidance from his office.

But Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, says that guidance is not clear enough.

“Right now, all we have is leaning on law enforcement and prosecutor discretion,” he said, “ and I don’t trust law enforcement and prosecutor discretion.”

Sinha said there needs to be a clear message from Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy that people can no longer be arrested or prosecuted for marijuana possession.

“It’s important for us to get the message from the top that this is no longer acceptable in New Jersey to arrest people or prosecute people for marijuana offenses,” he added.

A mix of reactions

As of noon Wednesday, 67% of Garden State voters voted yes on Question 1; 33% voted no.

The results were not a surprise to Gregg Edwards, executive director of the anti-legalization group Don’t Let New Jersey Go to Pot. He recognized his group was in an uphill battle with more money supporting groups that were pushing for legalization.

“We were fighting very strong headwinds,” he said. “This ballot question was set up so that it would be very difficult for us to fight.”

Edwards added that there was “no constituency we could appeal to raise money to fight the ballot question.”

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Sinha, with the ACLU of New Jersey, said they were excited to see the results and that their data indicated voters approved the referendum for racial justice reasons.

“People are worried about the racial disparity,” he said. “The fact that in New Jersey you’re three and a half times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession if you’re Black than if you’re white and the fact that we’re making 32,000 of these arrests annually.”

The Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, founder of the faith-based group Salvation and Social Justice, said he had mixed feelings about the results and the fact that legalization was even put on the ballot.

He was happy that voters decided to end the prohibition of marijuana which he has characterized as “a kind of legal oppression mostly upon Black people.” But Boyer is “much less confident” that the legislature will create the adult cannabis market with racial equity in mind.

“I’m not confident at all that they’re gonna do it in a racially just way,” he said. “They will say that they are, but their definition of justice and what justice really is, is two different things.”

If the legislature had legalized marijuana outright, Boyer believes they could have addressed issues of equality. But because legalization was approved at the ballot box, there is no guarantee that legislators will address equality.

Boyer is pushing for the tax revenue that will be generated by marijuana sales to be put in Black and Latino communities to “repair the harm by the drug war.”

“The [long arm] of the drug war and marijuana prohibition went far beyond just folks who possessed or folks who distributed,” he said. “This opened up a floodgate of harassment in our communities.”

“So the only way to do it justly is to have those funds come back into the communities that have been devastated economically, have been devastated educationally; have been devastated in so many ways,” Boyer added.

Inserting equality

Boyer and the ACLU of New Jersey now have the task of making sure legislators keep equity in mind as they create a framework for the new cannabis market.

“[In] the short-term, we’re gonna sit down with as many legislators as possible, as quickly as possible,” Boyer said. “We’ve been trying to make the case that they need to look at this from a reparations lens, so we’re gonna make that argument with as many folks as possible.”

Sinha said the ACLU has already begun talking to leadership in the Assembly and Senate about getting the social justice aspect front and center as they craft regulations.

In the coming days, there will be bills introduced in the legislature that will not only set regulations for the new market, but decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use as well.

“We want to do both; decriminalize in the interim so people don’t face criminal charges,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden). He adds that the key part of the bills to be introduced will be to “eviscerate” pending charges.

“People getting arrested tonight, tomorrow; we’re getting rid of those charges,” Scutari added.

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