Like Mark Twain or the old guy getting tossed onto a cart in Monty Python’s film “The Holy Grail,” reports of the death of legal marijuana in New Jersey have been exaggerated.
At least that’s what Kelli Hykes, the Government Relations Director for Weedmaps, maintained at a June 18, 2019, conference on the status of marijuana in Somerset, New Jersey, and presented by the nonprofit news organization NJ Spotlight.
Hykes argued that there is still time to approve the bill, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act, an option she sees as far preferable to a referendum vote that is more than a year away. But to do so, she said, supporters of marijuana reform need to let lawmakers know how they feel.
“I may be the Pollyanna of pot in New Jersey but it’s not dead yet and I’m still holding out hope that we can breathe life into it,” she said.
Hers was the minority opinion at the event.
In March 2019, New Jersey seemed poised to become the first state to create a regulated, taxed marijuana market for adult use through the state Legislature. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was fighting for the measure, which had the support of the leadership in the state Senate and Assembly. The votes were there in the Assembly, but supporters were unable to cobble together the 21 votes needed in the Senate for passage.
After a morning of intense lobbying, Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney pulled the bill rather than see it defeated. He and Murphy had said the bill would return, but even Sweeney now says it will be taken to New Jersey voters as a ballot measure in 2020 rather than trying to push it through the Senate.
Another panelist at the event, Fruqan Mouzon, helped write the bill. Mouzon has served as general counsel to New Jersey’s Senate Majority Office and is now the chair of the cannabis practice group at the law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney, and Carpenter LLP.
According to Mouzon, the bill became increasingly complex in part because of efforts to create a new, multibillion-dollar legal industry that also would help address social and economic justice issues.
“What we didn’t want was three big conglomerates taking over the marijuana industry in New Jersey,” he said. The bill aimed to create space for women, minorities, and disabled veterans as entrepreneurs.
But the complexity also came at a cost. There were several elements that he described as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” He described a balancing act in which compromises that were needed to bring in one reluctant Senate vote would in turn lose two others.
For Hykes, that complexity is an important reason the bill should be passed legislatively. The language of the referendum question will likely be very simple, without including the detailed policy that is needed to launch a new industry.
In New Jersey, she said, the referendum vote would amend the state’s Constitution. If approved as supporters expect, that would mean a slow and difficult process to make any changes that contradict the language on the ballot, a process that takes years at best. That’s a bad idea in a fast-changing industry, she said.
“The idea that we would be putting ourselves in a situation that it could take two to three years to course-correct is very dangerous, in my opinion,” Hykes said.
Not only is it a good idea for New Jersey lawmakers to pass the bill, she argued, but it is also doable, if supporters start putting political pressure on their representatives. A vote could happen after the November 2019 election, which Hykes described as the “lame duck” session. That would give lawmakers months to work out a compromise.
“It’s premature to call the bill dead,” she said. “It definitely was involved in a fiery crash, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the bill is in a coma.”
Mouzon did not believe a lame duck vote is likely. If voters support legalization, the Legislature would still have to act to create the regulations that would cover sales and use. At that point, he said, lawmakers would dust off that complicated bill, now with the political cover to vote yes.
He seems certain voters will say yes.
“I don’t think that there’s any fear that it won’t pass overwhelmingly, 70%,” he said. The vote will come in a presidential election cycle, one with President Donald Trump on the ballot, which is likely to strongly motivate Democrats and progressives to get to the polls.
Hykes also said at the event co-sponsored by Weedmaps that the legislative route is the best policy option for New Jersey.
“What we haven’t seen is an uprising, a swell of support from the public. I think that if we saw that, the likelihood of passing during lame duck would be much higher,” she said. “Possible and likely are very different. It is absolutely possible, and it would be much more likely if people picked up the phone and demanded it.”
Mouzon agreed. “I think she’s absolutely right. There wasn’t a cry for legalization. The only voices you heard were in opposition.” Though the bill’s social justice element earned vocal support, Mouzon said legalization advocates didn’t build much of a case beyond that.
In the meantime, lawmakers in New Jersey and beyond continue to move forward on the issue. New Jersey approved wide-ranging reforms to its medical marijuana system, part of a package of bills set to be voted together with adult use. New York approved a statewide decriminalization bill after also falling short on legalization.
Illinois, however, was able to pass marijuana legalization in its General Assembly. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill June 25, 2019, in Chicago. Adult-use sales go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Mouzon argued that decriminalization is not the answer, citing some people’s long-held belief that marijuana is a “gateway” to other drugs.
“The drug dealer is the gateway,” he said. “If the only way that you can get marijuana is on the street, that guy can also give you cocaine. He can get you heroin. He can get you anything else you want. So we wanted to make it legal so we can regulate it and we can control how it gets out.”
The arrests continue as well. In arguing for quick action on legalization and expungement, Murphy said about 600 people get arrested on marijuana-related charges each week in New Jersey, and about 450 of those are people of color.
Featured Image: John Mooney, CEO and education writer for NJ Spotlight, introduces a panel of experts discussing how New Jersey can pass legislation this session to legalize marijuana. (Photo by Bill Barlow)