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Let the People Be Heard!

New Jersey residents will decide whether to legalize marijuana in the Garden State, after both houses of the state Legislature voted Monday to put the question on the 2020 ballot.

The measure passed the state Senate in a 24-16 vote at the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday afternoon, while the state Assembly voted 49-24 with one abstention.

“People actually smoke marijuana every day," said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, a sponsor of the proposal. “Can you believe it? But until your relative gets arrested over this substance that is widely used in this state and country” some people will not understanding why this is so important.

Gov. Phil Murphy made legalizing marijuana for those over 21 one of his campaign promises. In the nearly two years since he took office, the initiative has seen several setbacks. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced in late November he would not take the bill to the floor, and would instead seek to put it to the ballot for voters to decide.

To get the question on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, both the state Senate and Assembly needed to approve it by either three-fifths majority in one year or by simple majorities in two consecutive years.

The 24 votes in the Senate just marked a three-fifths majority, while the 49 votes in the Assembly gave the house one more than needed to reach three-fifths.

“What a wonderful idea: Let the people decide,” said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, who opposes legalization and said traffic deaths have increased in states with legal weed. “We should expect more New Jerseyans dying every year if this were to pass.”

The ballot question has left both those who support and oppose legalization wary; supporters worry the brevity of a ballot question will fail to encompass topics like social justice and revenue in the depth legislation could have, while opponents feel lawmakers are punting their duty to the public after failed attempts to pass a law and placing the responsibility on citizens instead.

“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," Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement following the votes. “Marijuana prohibition has derailed thousands of lives in New Jersey, while driving marijuana production and sales to the sometimes dangerous illicit market."

The question reads as follows:

Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’? Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis. The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Cannabis products would be subject to the State sales tax. If authorized by the Legislature, a municipality may pass a local ordinance to charge a local tax on cannabis products.”

An interpretation of the question to be included on the ballot states the soon-to-be appointed Cannabis Regulatory Commission for medical marijuana would oversee the market. It also specifies cannabis products would be subject to state sales tax, and municipalities impose a local tax, too, if authorized by lawmakers.

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

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