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New Jersey Governor Is ‘Highly Confident’ Marijuana Legalization Referendum Will Pass

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) says he is “highly confident” that voters will approve a marijuana legalization referendum that’s on the ballot Tuesday.

And while the legislature will still have to pass an enabling bill to regulate the market, that is currently being “baked,” he said in an interview early in the day.

The governor said he honestly didn’t mean to make that marijuana-related pun but that it unintentionally slipped out as he shared his thoughts about the prospects of passing the reform on Election Day.

“I don’t have any insight into the ballots. We allowed county clerks to begin counting them a week ago Saturday, but the penalties for disclosing what’s on those ballots is very high. But the public polling continues to be overwhelmingly in favor,” he said, referencing the slew of surveys showing support for the policy change in the mid-60s.

“I’m highly confident that today we will achieve a great milestone, and it is overwhelmingly a step toward, at long last, social justice,” he said. “We inherited when I came into office the widest white, non-white gap of persons incarcerated in America and the overwhelming reason was low-end drug crimes. And please, God, we will finally wrestle this to the ground. It’s taken longer than I wanted, but I believe we’ll get there when we have the results from today.”

The referendum question simply asks voters whether they support legalizing cannabis for adult use. If it passes, legislators will have to pass a bill that lays the groundwork for a regulated marijuana market. Murphy said that legislation will contain social equity provisions, including expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

“One of the principles we had from day one was, you can’t do something prospectively that you’re not willing to do retroactively. There still needs to be—assuming it passes the referendum today—there still needs to be what they call enabling legislation so that’s still being baked, no pun intended,” he said.

The host laughed and stopped the governor, saying “that was well-done.”

“Yeah, so I gotta tell you that came out— truth be told, that was not intentional, but I’ll take it,” Murphy said. “It’s like the three pointer that banks in the basket.”

Murphy might insist that these were unintentional puns, but he’s shown he’s not above playing into cannabis culture on social media.

“Let me be BLUNT: Legalizing marijuana is a matter of social justice, racial justice, and economic justice,” he tweeted on Monday.

And last week he scheduled a legalization-related tweet for 4:20 PM.

The governor said in a separate interview on Tuesday that he’s “hopeful and optimistic that it passes,” repeating that while he doesn’t have any insight into the vote count, the polling is strong.

“God willing, it’ll pass. We’ll then work with the legislature to get that up and running,” he said. “And we’ll address the biggest social injustices in our state. And at the same time, by the way—secondarily but importantly, it will create jobs and create economic activity.”

Sen. Nick Scutari (D), chair of the Judiciary Committee, recently said he’s been hard at work drafting enabling legislation with the expectation that the measure will pass. The bill will be filed “hopefully by the end of the week, Thursday or next Monday,” he said.

While there are few details about what the legislation will entail, it’s expected to largely reflect a legalization bill that Scutari previously introduced. That proposal did not advance through the legislature, however, leading lawmakers to put the question of legalizing cannabis before voters as a referendum.

Last month he floated the idea of allowing the state’s existing medical cannabis dispensaries to sell marijuana products to adult consumers within weeks of the referendum vote.

“I think one of the most important things is to allow people to buy legal cannabis immediately,” Scutari, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

However, the plan was shut down by a top regulator who said they would not be able to meet the increased demand from recreational consumers while still serving patients.

Scutari’s panel was also supposed to hold a hearing last month to gather public input on crafting marijuana regulations, but it was cancelled after he went into quarantine following exposure to coronavirus.

While there are still open questions about what enabling legislation will ultimately look like, there are few doubts that voters will approve the referendum based on polling.

A survey released last month found that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the reform proposal, with 29 percent opposed and six percent undecided.

Those results are statistically consistent with the prior three polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two-to-one support for the measure. A separate survey released by Stockton University showed three-to-one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.

Pro-legalization advocates have benefited from funding and key endorsements in the weeks leading up to the election.

For example, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke in favor of the referendum in an ad released by the NJ CAN 2020 last month.

“I hope as you fill out the front of your ballot, you will look at the back and see that question, ballot question number one, and that you will vote to legalize marijuana in New Jersey for adult use,” he said. “We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”

That ad came out just as campaign finance data released by the state showed that supporters of the cannabis reform measure were outraising opponents by a 200-to-1 ratio.

Earlier numbers released two weeks earlier pegged the fundraising disparity at a ratio of nearly 130 to 1.

But arguably the most vocal public figure advocating for a ‘yes’ vote has been Murphy.

In another recent interview, the governor said that the state will “build an industry, it would be a revenue-generator.”

“I think at first it would be modest, but ultimately will grow, I think, into several hundred million dollars in the state budget,” he said. “Along with social justice, that’s a pretty good, winning combination.”

He also recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 last month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.

The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.

“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”

Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.

The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith last month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”

NJ CAN 2020 released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last month, after having published one prior ad. The campaign’s most recent ad touted the economic benefits of the policy change.

In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.

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