Election Day 2020 is quickly approaching and with this election cycle occurring during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is gearing up to be one of the most unique and unprecedented election seasons in recent memory. Each ballot contains consequential choices at every level of government, from the highest office in the land to the “highest” ballot initiatives in several states where voters are asked to decide the legality of future adult-use marijuana in their neighborhoods. Voters in Mississippi will choose whether medical marijuana should be legalized, while Arizona, Montana and New Jersey citizens are asked if they think recreational use should be permitted, and South Dakota has put forth both recreational and medicinal measures on its ballots. Each proposal takes a slightly different approach, but New Jersey’s initiative may turn out to be the most consequential of the marijuana ballot questions put to voters this November, as it has significant support in recent polling and will likely cause a ripple effect throughout the states in the Northeast region, if approved.
When the state legislature passed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act in 2010, the Garden State became just the 14th state to allow medical marijuana. The New Jersey Senate considered legalizing the substance for adult recreational use in 2019 but failed to gain enough traction to pass it legislatively, so advocates turned to the current ballot initiative, which Governor Phil Murphy has supported, as an alternative. The constitutional amendment proposed by Public Question 1 on the ballot asks voters to decide whether “to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for persons age 21 and older and legalize the cultivation, processing, and sale of retail marijuana” in New Jersey. If successful, Section 13 would be added to Section VII of Article IV of the New Jersey Constitution making New Jersey the 12th state to legalize recreational cannabis use.
Some recent polls show that the measure is popular among voters and is expected to pass, but it is uncertain how quickly the required regulated market to grow, distribute and sell the product could be established. The implementation delay would mean that it could take years before the State sees revenue generated from sales taxes (currently at 6.625%) set forth in the measure, as well as the additional 2% sales tax local governments may be able to collect. The spiking pandemic has further complicated the landscape, as all active registered voters in New Jersey automatically received ballots in the mail and since the Public Questions are on the reverse side of the ballot, there is concern that some voters may not complete that portion.
Should the initiative successfully pass, legalization of adult use marijuana in the Garden State will likely force neighboring states to follow. While New York’s recent attempts to legalize recreational use have failed, the fiscal strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may be incentive enough for propel changes that could generated much needed revenue. With Massachusetts and Maine already allowing adult consumption, a change in New Jersey could push Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to follow as well, making the ballot initiative an interesting one to watch closely this November.