New Jersey lawmakers voted on Monday to put a marijuana legalization referendum on the 2020 ballot, leaving the decision to voters after failing to pass a recreational cannabis measure earlier this year. With a vote of 49 to 24 in the New Jersey Assembly and 24 to 16 in the state Senate, the question of legalizing cannabis for adult use will be decided by next year’s general election in November. The proposal does not need the approval of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who campaigned for office promising to legalize recreational marijuana.

“The time to end the prohibition of adult-use cannabis is now,” said Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

“Putting the issue to a referendum is both sensible and equitable,” Coughlin said in a statement. “While not our preferred method of legislating, public questions allow voters to affirm or deny massive shifts in public policy.”

The ballot question will ask voters if they approve of a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. The state sales tax rate of 6.6225% would apply to sales of recreational marijuana and local jurisdictions would have the authority to pass ordinances to levy additional taxes. The state commission created to regulate New Jersey’s medical marijuana program would also be tasked with overseeing the new recreational market.

Better Than Nothing?

Karen O’Keefe, the director of state policies at the cannabis reform activist group the Marijuana Policy Project, welcomed the action by the legislature following the votes.

“While we are disappointed the legislature did not directly legalize marijuana, we are optimistic that 2020 will be the year New Jersey replaces its eight-decade-long experiment with marijuana prohibition with a more thoughtful and humane approach,” O’Keefe said in a statement. “Marijuana prohibition has derailed thousands of lives in New Jersey, while driving marijuana production and sales to the sometimes dangerous illicit market.”

But others who support the legalization of cannabis, including Amol Sinha, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, believe that the subject is too complex for a ballot question. She urged lawmakers to continue working to pass a legalization bill that includes social equity provisions.

“A constitutional amendment asks voters to make a decision first and find out the details later, undermining the principles of a representative, participatory democracy,” Sinha said in a statement. “Above anything else, racial and social justice provisions addressing the destruction wrought by the drug war must be at the forefront of any plan to legalize marijuana, and a constitutional amendment – while signaling welcome progress towards legalization – cannot provide that guarantee.”

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale opposes the legalization of recreational cannabis, saying that states that have legalized pot have seen an increase in traffic fatalities.

“What a wonderful idea: Let the people decide,” said Cardinale. “We should expect more New Jerseyans dying every year if this were to pass.”

But state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, one of the sponsors of the proposal to put the question to voters, said that it’s time to end the ineffective prohibition of cannabis.

“People actually smoke marijuana every day,” said Scutari. “Can you believe it? But until your relative gets arrested over this substance that is widely used in this state and country,” many people fail to understand the importance of legalization.

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