New Jersey voters will decide on November 3rd whether to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults age 21 and over in the Garden State.
While its use is legal for medicinal purposes in the state, legalizing it for recreational use remains a controversial issue. Even so, the idea of legalizing weed has been championed by Governor Phil Murphy for the last four years, well before he became governor. He said that, as the father of four, he was swayed only after talking to State Senator Nicholas Scutari, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the marijuana lobby’s most powerful ally in Trenton, about the benefits.
Scutari, an attorney, has promoted a weed market as a revenue generator capable raising millions of dollars to fund roads and other projects. That appeals to Murphy, but the governor has also framed legalization as a racial justice issue.
He referenced racial disparities in arrests of Black people compared to whites during a pro-legalization forum last week.
“The fact is that every week, roughly plus or minus 600 New Jerseyans—600—the majority of whom are persons of color, will be arrested for marijuana possession, will have a criminal record that will hurt their prospects for getting a job and education, housing, you name it,” Murphy said.
Murphy failed to get the bill, which Scutari sponsored, through the state legislature. It never went to a vote in the Senate because some lawmakers said they feared legalization could entice young people to smoke pot.
The legislature decided, instead, to let the voters decide next month. The referendum's advocates are also framing the issue as a strike against racial injustice.
“Voting ‘yes’ for racial justice reasons becomes politically consequential in New Jersey,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
His organization found that Black residents are arrested at a rate of 3.5 times that of white residents, even though marijuana usage rates between the two groups are similar.
“We have this opportunity right now to change politics as usual and to tell lawmakers and officials that the political machine, the New Jersey, that racial justice messaging works,” he said.
The ACLU's New Jersey chapter is a member of NJCan2020, a coalition of civil rights organizations and cannabis lobbyists that is campaigning to get the ballot issue passed.
Election data released on Wednesday show the fledgling group NJCan2020 has raised over $700,000 to promote the merits of voting for legalization. It released its first ad last month, criticizing how much the state spends on policing marijuana violations and highlighting the disproportionate impact of enforcement on Black people.
The irony is that some of the campaign’s message does not go far enough with some of the most high-profile and active social justice activists in the state.
“The ballot question leaves no room to do racial justice,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, director of the progressive, faith-based group, Salvation and Social Justice.
Boyer was among the first Black pastors to come out in support of marijuana legalization three years ago as a means to reverse the destructive impact the War on Drugs has had on Black and Latino families.
But his support hinged on legislation that included concessions for people who were penalized for selling small amounts of marijuana in the past, like expunging their criminal records, and requiring that they be allowed to get licenses to sell cannabis in a legal market.
He also wanted a percentage of marijuana revenues collected by the state to be poured into inner cities that saw high percentages of Black and Latino men arrested and incarcerated because of marijuana offenses.
Boyer said the problem he has with the ballot issue allows voters to vote “yes” or “no,” creating a legal market “with no strings attached.” That, he said, only benefits the overwhelmingly “white male millionaires that will be coming into this industry.”
As a result, he has not joined any campaign to get the ballot measure passed.
“I can't throw myself into a, ‘yes,’ legalization effort if it is not thoroughly attached to racial justice,” Boyer said.
Listen to reporter Karen Rouse's radio story for WNYC:
What Boyer and other Black activists do support is a bill to decriminalize marijuana that has been languishing in the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Scutari.
The bill was drafted by Senator Ron Rice, the longest-serving Black legislator in Trenton, and a steadfast opponent of legalization. His sister struggled with drug addiction before she died, and Rice, who is from Newark, has said a legal marijuana industry will only create drug addicts in inner cities. He has also accused the marijuana industry -- which is overwhelmingly white-owned -- of using racial justice as a strategy to get rich on the backs of Black people.
Under Rice’s decriminalization bill, the possession of small amounts of cannabis would be a violation instead of a crime. Offenders would be fined—and avoid jail time and a criminal record.
Rice said that had the legislature passed his bill last year, everyone that had been arrested on possession charges since then would have avoided a criminal record.
“Thousands of people wouldn't have a record right now that's been arrested for small amounts of marijuana,” Rice said. “They could still go to work. They could find jobs.”
Rice’s bill does not call for creating a legal weed market. And that does not sit well with an industry that, according to the digital news site Marijuana Business Daily, hopes to reach as much as $950 million in sales a year by 2024 if legalization passes in New Jersey.
Scutari, who is white, has refused to move Rice’s decriminalization bill out of the Judiciary Committee. He said he is as committed to racial justice as Rice is, but that decriminalization doesn’t keep police away from Black people caught using marijuana.
“Just because it’s decriminalized doesn't mean that people will not have interaction with the police,” he said. “It just means that the penalties might be a little less severe, but you still get processed, still going to get court appearances. You're still going to have to talk to the police.”
Scutari said he is willing to look at decriminalization if the ballot measure does not pass on November 3rd.
If the ballot measure does pass, the legislature still has to pass a bill that sets up the industry framework -- like how much to tax marijuana, and whether to provide accommodations for people with records from marijuana possession, like setting aside licenses for them to operate their own businesses.