New Jersey voters will decide whether to legalize adult-use cannabis this fall, and with just over two weeks until Election Day, NJ CAN 2020 is ramping up its campaign efforts to support the referendum, enlisting the help of Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Nicholas Scutari.
Murphy and Scutari, who have long supported legalization in the state, joined NJ CAN 2020 for a live panel discussion Oct. 8 on what a “Yes” vote means for New Jersey (see below video).
“Gov. Murphy has been an outspoken proponent for this since he’s been elected and prior to being elected, and he’s been full-throated behind this effort to get this ballot question passed,” Bill Caruso, an attorney with Archer & Greiner and a member of NJ CAN 2020, told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary. “A million people have already voted in New Jersey. Having the governor come out when he came out, after vote-by-mail ballots arrived in New Jersey, is important."
NJ CAN 2020 was formed by the state’s cannabis advocates to support the adult-use legalization ballot initiative, and includes members of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, which comprises the ACLU of New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Latino Action Network, American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, as well as other industry partners such as the NJ CannaBusiness Association, political strategists and other industry leaders.
Polling conducted by the campaign has been favorable, Caruso said, so the main focus has been reminding voters that the cannabis referendum is appearing on the ballot.
Many voters are voting by mail, he said, and the adult-use legalization question is on the back side of the mail-in ballot, which has sparked NJ CAN 2020’s “Turn the Page” campaign to remind voters to flip their ballots over to cast their vote on legalization.
“Our focus right now is visibility,” Caruso said. “It’s not so much winning hearts and minds right now because we feel like the polling’s there [and] the public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of this, so it’s really just reminding people when they’re filling out their ballot [that] there are three public questions, legal marijuana being one of them.”
While NJ CAN 2020 plans to disband after the election, Caruso hopes the spirit of the campaign can live on as the state legislature drafts New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis law.
“There’s been a really positive, beneficial, cordial relationship between our advocacy partners and our industry partners,” he said. “I expect that to continue. It preceded NJ CAN 2020, it absolutely coexisted during, and I foresee that going on beyond this, as well.”
Scutari expects lawmakers to introduce new adult-use legislation that will be picked up immediately following the election, should voters approve legalization, Caruso said.
The Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, which passed in 2019 to expand New Jersey’s existing medical cannabis program, created the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to oversee not only the medical program, but also an adult-use industry, should one materialize.
“I think what we’ve learned from other states is to have some nimbleness to the process,” Caruso said. “Having a regulatory body that’s able to meet the demands of the patients, the customer base and the industry makes sense.”
Caruso would also like the state’s adult-use cannabis law to give municipalities control over the industry within their borders.
“As much as I’d love to have it easier to open up retail establishments, … making sure we have a balance [ensures] we can get something done,” he said. “Upholding the ability for municipalities to set their own rules to some extent or decide whether they want to opt in or opt out is important to this.”
The legislature must also determine how adult-use cannabis will be taxed, as well as whether the law will include a home grow provision, Caruso added.
“There does seem to be a large and growing movement in the patient population for patient-centered home grow,” he said. “That was actually in the original 2009 draft legislation when medical marijuana passed in New Jersey, but then was stripped out. But I would not be shocked to see some effort for a limited patient home grow on the medical side—that might make it into the bill.”
Overall, though, Caruso just wants to finally get adult-use legalization across the finish line in New Jersey.
“I’d just love to get adult-use legalization done with a good foundation, and this is going to be a law that’s going to morph over time, both on the regulatory and statutory side,” he said. “We’ve been fighting for this for about five years here. I’m ready to be done with legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, and I’m looking forward to retooling and refining that law in the years and decades to come.”
If legalization passes next month, Caruso expects adult-use sales to launch in 2021, using the existing medical cannabis industry as a foundation.
“Most of the conversations … have been, if [the] municipality that your retail is located in is OK with it and you can certify that you have enough supply to satisfy your patient population, you’re going to be able to start selling adult-use,” he said. “I get the sense that we could work through a very quick regulatory structure here to get this done so that by third quarter or fourth quarter 2021, you’re seeing adult-use sales in New Jersey.”
And legalization in New Jersey could be a catalyst for cannabis policy reform in other states in the region, Caruso said, adding that 2021 will likely be a busy year for legislative efforts, both at the state and federal level.
“Once … Jersey goes, I think you’re going to see a domino effect here in the region, but I also think we’re going to see a lot this year on the federal side,” he said. “I suspect this will be an important year for catch-up work related to cannabis."