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What happens if New Jersey legalizes marijuana: Everything you need to know

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Marijuana

New Jersey voters are deciding whether to add an amendment to the state constitution that would legalize “a controlled form of marijuana called cannabis” for adults 21 and over. The measure appears as a question on this year’s election ballot.

The measure has overwhelming support by a ratio of 2 to 1, several polls show. But if the measure passes, then what? The ballot question provides no details about how legalization would be put into practice. A legal industry will take time to build, and will be determined by laws and regulations that have yet to be written. We spoke with advocates, attorneys, lobbyists and state politicians about what to expect.

There are several organizations that don’t think it’s a good idea. The New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police is concerned that more people will be driving intoxicated. The New Jersey Psychiatric Association believes cannabis lowers cognitive performance in teenagers and disrupts processes for motivation. In a statement, the NJPA said marijuana impairs verbal learning, memory and attention, and increases risk for psychosis. The New Jersey Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns that habitual users have “a greater risk of decreased academic performance, increased school dropout rates, decreased overall educational attainment and decreased workplace productivity.” The Medical Society of New Jersey agrees with NJPA and NJCCAP but also worries that marijuana poses a risk to fetal development, and could aggravate respiratory diseases and other health conditions.

The state Legislature must draft and pass a law — and then create regulations — that would govern the new recreational marijuana industry. Gov. Phil Murphy, the Senate and the Assembly must appoint a total of five members to a Cannabis Regulatory Commission that would oversee both the current medical program and the new industry. Legalization would officially occur Jan. 1, but that doesn’t mean arrests will end or that weed will be available for purchase by all adults.

“That’s the billion-dollar question,” said activist Chris Goldstein, a spokesman for South Jersey NORML, which advocates for legalizing marijuana. “There’s no timeline built into the constitutional amendment.”

Maine took four years after passing legislation to create a legal recreational market. In Massachusetts, it took three years.

“But it doesn’t need to take that long in New Jersey,” Goldstein said.

That’s because legislators already have the bones of a working bill in place. Last year, the Assembly came within five votes of passing a legalization law. When state Senate President Steve Sweeney learned he didn’t have the votes, he punted the issue to the voters for them to decide.

If the ballot measure is approved and the Legislature immediately passes a statute, “you could see sales in the third or fourth quarter of 2021,” said Bill Caruso, an attorney who heads the cannabis law division at Archer Law. “But there’s a lot of ifs and buts.”

Goldstein believes putting an emphasis on home delivery — and making sure home delivery is ensconced in the law and the regulations — will speed the process and create thousands of weed courier jobs. “Remember, it’s an industry that will need to be created in the midst of COVID,” Goldstein said. “Getting zoning and permits for retail storefronts takes a lot of time.”

Current dispensaries are allowed to deliver, though it’s unclear how many of them are actually driving marijuana to their patients’ homes.

In states that had an existing medical marijuana program before going “rec,” the medical dispensaries were the first to sell to the general public in a process often called “flipping the switch.”

“The legislation previously contemplated in Trenton would allow the current retailers to sell to the adult-use recreational market,” Caruso said.

In all of New Jersey, there are only a handful of operational medical dispensaries. In South Jersey, those include Curaleaf in Bellmawr and two Botanist outposts: One in Egg Harbor Township and another on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Obviously, three dispensaries will not be sufficient to serve millions of potential customers.

“In the future, you’ll have a bunch more retail licenses issued,” said Scott Rudder, a former Republican assemblyman who now lobbies for the cannabis industry. “But (the laws and regulations) creating those licenses will take some time to pass, and it could take longer for those licenses to be awarded.”

About 70 municipalities have already said no, according to NJ1015.com.

It will not be available in towns that don’t want a retail marijuana operation, or in those municipalities that only want medical dispensaries, Caruso said. “Many towns already have vowed to block any attempts for retailers to set up shop,” he added. “But delivery could be a way around that.”

The tide could be changing, given budget shortfalls brought on by the economic impact of COVID-19.

“Many mayors are thinking of switching their positions,” said Rudder. “Towns that have been on the fence are looking at the economic realities today, looking to build jobs and generate tax revenue.”

Legally purchase? Yes.

Legally import to Pennsylvania? No.

“Keystoners would be able to purchase weed in the Garden State, but only for use in New Jersey,” Caruso said. “Taking any cannabis across state lines remains a federal crime. So returning to Pennsylvania with weed would be a crime.”

The marijuana industry is counting on “weed tourism,” however, and expects vacationers to stock up on their way to the shore.

Possessing even small amounts of weed in Pennsylvania without a medical marijuana card could open someone to drug trafficking and possession charges. Though transporting marijuana from legal states to prohibition states is fairly common and not usually monitored, Caruso said police could decide to crack down at any time.

“I would be surprised to see law enforcement spend their resources on that,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit advocacy group. “It’s easier to catch a California plate moving into South Dakota. But given the amount of people already traveling from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, I don’t think crackdowns would be feasible.”

That’s another unknown.

Rudder believes it could happen “almost immediately.” But without a directive by the state attorney general ordering local police departments to stand down, arrests and prosecutions could continue until Jan. 1.

“We’re still arresting 100 people a day for possession in New Jersey,” Goldstein said. “On Nov. 4, we’d like them to pass the bill introduced by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) that would decriminalize possession of up to one pound of marijuana.”

That’s far from certain.

“If the Legislature could pass a bill that decriminalizes marijuana, and does so by Nov. 3, we’ll be able to immediately stop the arrests,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “It doesn’t mean that it would be available for sale. It’s just one aspect that would protect people from arrests.”

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