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'Game changer': What legalizing marijuana in NJ means to the region — and the country

Mike Davis
Asbury Park Press

When New Jersey finally became the 13th state to legalize marijuana Monday, it wasn't just the state's social justice activists, entrepreneurs and the state's most ardent weed enthusiasts waiting with bated breath.

Legal weed advocates nationwide have kept a close eye on New Jersey, seen as a vital domino that could soon send the entire East Coast cascading toward marijuana legalization. 

And, eventually, the rest of the country.

"New Jersey could be the game changer for the Northeast and for the Mid-Atlantic. It is a huge state, there will be a large market there and it will undoubtedly put pressure on surrounding states to rethink their positions and create momentum for cannabis reform," said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group for marijuana legalization. 

New Jersey is the first state in the mid-Atlantic region to legalize marijuana, and only the fourth state — after Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — on the East Coast to legalize the drug. 

But the Garden State won't be alone for long. 

Virginia lawmakers are haggling over the final version of a weed bill to send to Gov. Ralph Northam, who reiterated his support for marijuana legalization in his 2021 budget address.

And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week introduced his own set of marijuana legalization plans, while legislators have already proposed their own plans for legalizing weed with an emphasis on reinvesting in Black and brown communities where marijuana laws were disproportionately enforced for decades. 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman want to legalize weed, but face opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont included marijuana legalization revenue in his proposed budget.

"New Jersey is one of the more consequential moves for state-level legalization recently, particularly because of where it exists geographically," said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. 

"This is really going to apply pressure to those states to get their cannabis laws in line.

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How legalizing marijuana in New Jersey may spread

Analysts believe the first state in the region to legalize marijuana could stand to gain billions in economic growth. For example, dispensaries in New Jersey are expected to be within a day's drive for an estimated 130 million people. 

"All these states are 15 minutes to a few hours drive from New Jersey, and they don't want to see their residents driving across the border and spending their dollars in a neighboring state when that tax revenue could be spent at home," Altieri said. 

The marijuana-linked economic boom has already begun in small ways since 2019, when legislators first placed the issue of legal weed on the ballot.

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Ancillary businesses that serve the cannabis industry — but don't actually grow, sell or transport marijuana — have already grown in spades, said NORML vice-chair Evan Nison, a New Jersey native. 

And the state's existing medical marijuana dispensaries have had months to prepare if their operators are interested in eventually selling marijuana to recreational customers, he said. 

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"There might be adults over 21 buying legal, regulated cannabis in New Jersey in the next few months," Nison said.

"The cannabis industry has already created jobs in New Jersey, but now they'll be able to deal directly with the plant — budtenders, growers, distributors." 

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'Change comes to Washington'

Before Election Day 2020, 11 states had already legalized weed.

Voters in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota all approved marijuana legalization ballot measures in November — Arizona’s took effect quickly, while the Montana ballot measure is set to take effect in July. 

The South Dakota ballot measure’s fate is uncertain after a court upheld Gov. Kristi Noem’s lawsuit alleging it was unconstitutional. 

With Monday’s bill signings in New Jersey, about one-third of all Americans live in a state with legal weed — but that ratio could balloon to 48% if New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia were all to legalize the drug. 

At that point, the momentum may make the issue inevitable on the federal level, supporters said.

"New Jersey is really an example of the old adage that change doesn't come from Washington, it comes to Washington," said Hawkins, of the Marijuana Policy Project. 

"It's exactly the kind of change taking place in New Jersey and elsewhere around the country that makes it possible to have these debates in Congress.

"And pretty soon, we're going to win those debates." 

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What happens next in states

The timing couldn't be better, advocates say. 

For one, states are in desperate need of new revenue to offset the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. And they'd prefer not having residents going to neighboring states to buy marijuana and lose the tax money. 

And supporters of marijuana had their hopes raised after President Joe Biden was elected in November and, especially, when Democrats won control of the Senate after special elections in Georgia in January. 

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In recent years, Biden has softened his stance on drug policy, including marijuana legalization, after a Senate career highlighted by his reputation as a drug warrior, chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee during a time when the "War on Drugs" was shaped.

But public discourse has shifted, with an Emerson College poll reporting in February that 61% of Americans said legalizing marijuana was a "good idea."

Last year, the House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would have removed marijuana as a "Schedule I" drug, by a 228 to 164 vote. 

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By descheduling cannabis, it would open the drug up for research at federally-funded universities and research centers and allow states to legalize weed without fear of the federal government taking action to stop it.

And in early February, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., issued a joint statement pledging to prioritize “comprehensive cannabis reform legislation."

In light of New Jersey legalizing weed on Monday, Booker said the state was at the "forefront of equitable marijuana legalization policy." 

Biden has followed suit, Altieri said.

"He wants to decriminalize marijuana, he wants to leave the decision to legalize up to the states, he wants to expunge records," Altieri said. "So whether it's a late-life epiphany or a politically-convenient conversion, he's started to hit the right notes when talking about marijuana."

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Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at mdavis@gannettnj.com or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.