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Recreational marijuana legalized by New Jersey voters

Marijuana grows at the Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, N.J., in 2018.
Marijuana grows at the Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, N.J., in 2018.BRYAN ANSELM/NYT

After years of legislative failures, New Jersey voters on Tuesday authorized the legal use of recreational marijuana in a year when supporters rallied around the disproportionate number of arrests for the drug in minority communities.

The ballot question passed as expected, by a wide margin, according to preliminary results from The Associated Press.

The vote allows New Jersey officials to begin the thorny, potentially lengthy process of establishing rules related to regulating and testing cannabis and issuing licenses, including how many permits to grant — and to whom.

It also instantly raises the ante for neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania, increasing pressure on lawmakers who support legalization to take action or risk losing the competitive edge to New Jersey in what is expected to be one of the largest marijuana markets in the country.

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State Sen. Liz Krueger of New York, the author of a legalization bill pending in Albany, said the “yes” vote could be the incentive Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers need to break a yearslong logjam.

“I’m going to cheer on New Jersey,” said Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, “and hope that it helps us beat them to the punch.”

Voters in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota were also asked to support measures to legalize recreational marijuana on Tuesday. If the questions pass in all four states, a third of the country will soon live in a state or city where it is legal to smoke pot without a medical justification, eight years after Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the drug.

The question New Jersey voters approved called for a 6.625% state tax on marijuana sales to customers 21 or older, and permitted municipalities to charge an extra 2% tax. But most other implementation details must now be worked out by the Legislature and a five-person Cannabis Regulatory Commission — only one of whom has been appointed.

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In Massachusetts, it took two years from the time voters approved nonmedical use of marijuana to the grand opening of the state’s first legal dispensaries.

The potential for extra tax revenue and new jobs may serve as a powerful motivator to move quickly in New Jersey, which is struggling to plug budget gaps left by a pandemic now stretching into its ninth month. The measure is expected to generate about $126 million a year once the market is established.

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a former municipal prosecutor who has long championed legalization of the drug for medical and recreational uses, said he was putting the final touches on a bill that would enable the state’s nine existing medical marijuana companies to sell excess cannabis to recreational users.

“We’re anticipating moving very quickly with enabling legislation, which would in fact allow medical marijuana shops to sell to the general public immediately,” said Scutari, a Democrat who represents Union County. “We’re happy to invite New York residents over to enjoy.”

Supporters of the measure have cited widely divergent arrest rates as a key reason to amend the drug laws.

In New Jersey, Black residents are more than three times as likely as white residents to be charged with marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage — a disparity Scutari called a “colossal waste of resources and a colossal waste of people’s lives.”

The recreational use of marijuana is already legal in 11 other states and in Washington, and last year the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — all Democrats who support legalization — met in New York to try to coordinate marijuana policies.

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Cuomo identified legalization as a priority in January, well before the pandemic landed a full frontal blow to state finances and increased the rationale for finding new products to tax.

In an interview last month publicizing the release of his new book, Cuomo, who once called marijuana a “gateway drug,” said the fiscal crisis facing New York would likely help to push legalization across the finish line. “We need the money now,” the governor told a Bravo television personality.

But the conversation over legalizing marijuana now goes far beyond finances.

What was once an argument centered mainly on the bottom-line benefits of taxing and regulating a product widely in use has been reframed as one with racial equity at its heart. In the United States, Black residents are 3.64 times more likely than their white neighbors to be charged with marijuana possession, according to a 2018 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Over the summer, large coast-to-coast protests by demonstrators angered by police killings of African American residents reinforced a key pillar of the pro-legalization campaign: With fewer drug-related reasons for the police to make stops, there would be less opportunity for violent confrontations.

“This was a resounding victory. We led with racial justice messaging, and we’ve proven that it can win,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU-New Jersey, which led a coalition of groups in support of legalization. “We are now on a pathway for a more just future for New Jersey.”

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The decision to put the question to voters came after failed attempts to pass a law legalizing marijuana, a promise Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a self-described progressive Democrat, campaigned on.

In December, the legalization effort fell short in the Senate by just one vote.

Last Wednesday, at 4:20 p.m., Murphy sent a message on Twitter urging voters to support legalization, latching on to a number popular in cannabis culture.