With cannabis legalization on the ballot for New Jersey and Pennsylvania likely to follow, New York stands a chance of falling behind in the northeast.
Legal cannabis is on the ballot for New Jersey this November.
After years of failed legislative pushes and regulatory disagreements, lawmakers decided last year to put the question of adult-use legalization directly to voters in a statewide referendum. If successful, this referendum would put cannabis under the control of the Cannabis Regulatory Committee (CRC), the entity which currently oversees New Jersey’s medical program. Following its passage, the CRC would work in conjunction with the legislature to draft rules and regulations, including those for possession limits and homegrow. At least 25% of licenses would be reserved for disadvantaged communities.
This referendum follows years of calls for legalization. According to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of New Jersey voters are in favor of legalization, a number which has been steadily increasing. 55% of voters also polled in favor of a higher tax rate for cannabis.
Voters feel that regulated cannabis would curb the illicit market, provide safer products, and stimulate the economy. Additional tax revenue is especially seen as important in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak this year.
Voters are not alone - New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) has been vocal in his support for legalization. During a radio interview this past July, Gov. Murphy spoke on legalization, saying: “It’s got a huge social justice piece for me. The overwhelming percentage of persons nailed in our criminal justice system are persons of color. It’s a no-brainer in that respect.” He also stated that cannabis is “a job creator, it’s a tax revenue raiser… I hope we’ll get there sooner than later.”
Last year, Gov. Murphy supported a marijuana decriminalization bill, which marks a first step towards broad cannabis reform in the state. Social justice reform has been a key component of legalization and will have a great impact on any legalization efforts in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Legal cannabis is very likely to become a reality in New Jersey this November. Fundamental changes will not occur overnight – it will likely take months or even years before regulations are created and marijuana can be sold recreationally. However, legalization will have a drastic impact on neighboring states and could greatly influence New York.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) might be the most outspoken Governor in support of adult-use legalization.
Last week, Gov. Wolf held a press conference criticizing Pennsylvania’s republican-led senate for failing to move forward with a legalization proposal last year. He later tweeted: “With marijuana legalization, we can restore justice to those who have endured extreme punishments for marijuana-related offenses. Decriminalizing marijuana is an important and overdue step when it comes to criminal justice reform.”
Gov. Wolf also views legal marijuana as a way to stimulate economic recovery in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Other Pennsylvania lawmakers have echoed this stance. In a letter to the state’s legislative leaders, a number of lawmakers stressed the “dire” economic situation in the state and the necessity of the state government to do “absolutely everything [it] can to raise revenue.” With legal cannabis market projections of nearly $600 million annually, cannabis could be a vital resource in this time of economic uncertainty.
Gov. Wolf has suggested that a Pennsylvania marijuana program operate similar to their alcohol program, where the state itself would run retail sales. This could potentially expedite the collection of much-needed tax revenue.
On the popular scale, a recent poll found that 62% of Pennsylvanians support legalization, with supports ranging from conservatives to democrats. As in other states, social equity and potential tax revenue have played major roles in garnering support for legalization.
Governor Wolf, in coordination with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), announced at the press conference that they are calling for a legalization plan in the state. Republican lawmakers have vocally opposed this call, criticizing Gov. Wolf for pushing marijuana while failing to properly address the state’s opioid crisis. Hopes are high, however, and with large support from voters, lawmakers, and the Governor himself, legalization could certainly be imminent in Pennsylvania’s future.
What about New York?
Legalization efforts in New York have largely broken down in the past two years, notably due to legislative breakdowns and the Coronavirus pandemic. With legalization in New Jersey highly likely this November, and Pennsylvania likely to follow suit, New York will be pressed to push legalization forward in the future. If New Jersey and Pennsylvania legalized cannabis, New York would be bordered entirely by legal states (with the exception of Connecticut). Economic stimulation and social justice will likely continue to put immense pressure on the state.
While lawmakers remain hopeful for cannabis legalization in New York's future, the state could very well lag behind other key states. With past bills featuring controversial regulations and exorbitant tax rates, as seen in Gov. Cuomo's Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA) last year, even a legal cannabis industry in New York could fail to reach its full potential. It will be critical for New York to pursue adult-use cannabis legalization in the near future.
Governor Cuomo has remained optimistic about adult-use in New York despite the pandemic, stating that he "believes we will" legalize it in the near future. In order for New York to become a leader in the industry, it must pursue fair and sustainable cannabis legislation in the future.
New Jersey is voting soon. Pennsylvania will likely follow. It’s up to New York to make sure that they don’t fall behind.