New Jersey is poised to become the biggest state on the East Coast to legalize recreational marijuana.
After struggling to enact legislation to join the growing number of states that have fully lifted prohibition of the drug, lawmakers placed it directly on the Nov. 3 ballot, and it passed by a wide margin on Tuesday.
The step will be a major boost to the cannabis business by making New Jersey the fourth most-populous state to legalize recreational use. It also promises more than $100 million of new tax revenue to New Jersey, which was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and is planning to borrow billions to cover the shortfalls left in the government’s budget.
“It will be an economic engine for New Jersey when it gets going,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat, who plans to file enabling legislation as soon. “The greater impact on society is going to be the job opportunities, people getting employed and paying their employment tax, people not getting arrested. It’ll be a whole new industry just like we have liquor stores, and we have breweries and we have beverage warehousing.”
You can’t use marijuana legally yet, even though voters approved the constitutional amendment Tuesday that will legalize its recreational use, according to guidance from New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who underscored in a statement on Wednesday that the amendment doesn’t authorize “unregulated marijuana,” and it doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2021.
“All of the state’s criminal laws relating to marijuana continue to apply, until, among other things, the Legislature enacts a law creating that regulatory framework,” Grewal said. “It is important that residents accurately understand the current situation, so they do not inadvertently engage in criminal conduct.”
New Jersey joined Arizona, Montana and South Dakota legalizing recreational marijuana on Tuesday. Before the election, the District of Columbia and 11 other states had authorized cannabis use.
It is expected to generate $1.9 billion of sales in New Jersey, possibly generating some $126 million of sales-tax revenue, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Services. Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey since 2010.
The new revenue would help a state that plans to issue as much as $4.5 billion of debt in the current budget year to cover budget shortfalls as the coronavirus outbreak weakens revenue collections. New Jersey has a lower bond rating than any other state except Illinois and is at risk of being downgraded to triple-B levels, the lowest range of investment grades.
“If we didn’t need the money before, we certainly need it post-pandemic with all the austerity measures that are being talked about at the state level due to certain budget issues because of the pandemic,” said Michael McQueeny, a lawyer who specializes in the cannabis industry at FoleyHoag.
New Jersey’s referendum enables legislation to be enacted as soon as late November, and will impose the state’s 6.6% sales tax on cannabis sales and allow local governments to implement an added levy of up to 2%, he said.
To help bring sales out from the underground market and make legal pot sales competitive, the state should avoid high taxes on the product, said Scott Rudder, a former state legislator and president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
The state’s Republican senators and assembly members largely opposed legalization, and the party’s county chairpersons in September passed a resolution to oppose the ballot question.
Since Governor Phil Murphy took office in 2018, he and other state lawmakers have tried, and failed, to legalize recreational use through the legislature. Governor Andrew Cuomo has faced similar difficulty in neighboring New York.
A Stockton University poll of likely New Jersey voters conducted from Oct. 7 through Oct. 13 showed that 66% supported the referendum while 23% oppose and another 10% were not sure or undecided.