If New Jersey voters approve a marijuana legalization referendum on their ballots next week, sales in the Garden State could get rolling at record speed. A plan by one top lawmaker would allow the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling to adults over 21 within a month of the election.
“I think one of the most important things is to allow people to buy legal cannabis immediately,” state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D-Union) said in an interview with NJ.com on Tuesday.
Those preferring to grow their cannabis at home, however, would be out of luck: “People will not be permitted to get marijuana from illegalized sources or homegrown or anything like that at this point,” Scutari said, adding that the issue “can probably be addressed in the future.”
Scutari was discussing what to expect if New Jersey voters approve Public Question 1, which would legalize the cultivation, processing and sale of retail marijuana in the state. The legalization measure itself is a brief five sentences, leaving most details up to regulators and lawmakers.
The first step, Scutari said, would be for lawmakers to pass so-called enabling legislation, which would begin to set the rules for the new marijuana market. He said he wants the legislation “done within the same month of November that we have the legalization pass.”
“We might be able to flip the switch and people might be able to get marijuana, legally, right after the vote.”
Logistically speaking, the plan might be easier said than done. For one thing, dispensaries would need to certify that they could still meet existing medical patient demand, and it’s not clear whether producers could scale up in time to meet that goal.
“If it happened tomorrow, I don’t think we have an operator that would be ready to start selling adult use,” Jeff Brown, an assistant commissioner of the Department of Health who oversees New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, said in a separate interview with NJ.com’s NJ Cannabis Insider. “The industry as a whole would have to really put the pedal to the metal to start making that happen and start getting ready if they were to be deemed able to sell in a potential adult use marketplace.”
Already the state’s dispensaries have faced complaints from patients of long lines and product shortages, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. And patients in other states have frequently said that transitions to adult-use markets have made medical cannabis products more expensive and harder to access.
New Jersey so far has issued licenses to only 12 companies to grow, process and sell medical marijuana to more than 90,000 registered patients. Brown said his department has encouraged operators to expand in recent years, but only some have done so.
Another obstacle is simply getting Scutari’s legislation passed in a timely manner amid a new surge in coronavirus cases. A hearing to get a head start on planning legal cannabis implementation was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when the senator went into quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
In many cases, legal marijuana sales regulations can take years to implement. New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a radio interview last week that the state’s adult-use market might not open until well into 2021 if the referendum passes.
Asm. @SpeakerCoughlin, at @1450WCTC radio segment, says that even if adult-use #marijuana legalization ballot question is approved, it could be well into 2021 before you could go into a store and legally purchase cannabis for recreational use
— Daniel Munoz (@DanielMunoz100) October 23, 2020
Scutari, who previously introduced a legalization bill that failed to advance to a floor vote, remains optimistic about the work ahead. He said the forthcoming measure will resemble his past legislation, though he wants to add a section to end cannabis-related prosecutions for pending cases.“Right now we are working with co-sponsors and the governor’s office,” he said Tuesday. “We want to be able to get this thing passed quickly.”
“We might be able to flip the switch and people might be able to get marijuana, legally, right after the vote,” he added.
At a fundraiser earlier this month for the campaign working to pass the referendum, Scutari suggested that the enabling legislation could be passed as soon as the same week that voters sign off on legalization on their ballots.
Polling, meanwhile, indicates strong support for the legalization referendum. A survey earlier this month found 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of measure, with 29 percent opposed and six percent undecided. The results were consistent with several earlier polls.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D), too, has been actively campaigning for the referendum.
Murphy said in a video ad promoting the referendum that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars and has led to racial disparities in law enforcement. He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, recently released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records indicate legal marijuana supporters are outraising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130 to 1.
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 advanced in the Senate.