New Jersey is in bad fiscal shape. Governor Phil Murphy’s solution? Legalize recreational marijuana to plug gaping holes in the state budget.
Murphy, who took office in January following Chris Christie’s eight-year tenure, is grappling with a monstrous fiscal crisis. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Christie’s raiding of the New Jersey pension plan to pay for his corporate tax cuts left the fund for retired state employees vastly underfunded by billions. Critical state infrastructure is also in need of expensive upgrades, and the state’s structural deficit — which has, to be fair to Christie, persisted for decades — is approximately $2 billion.
So on Tuesday, Gov. Murphy made a bold declaration that angered both Democrats and Republicans in New Jersey: The state will have legalized recreational marijuana by the end of 2018. In an address accompanying his executive budget proposal — which includes $60 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales — Murphy said his call to legalize weed builds on Democrats’ proposed decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
“I greatly respect those in this chamber who have proposed decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I thank them for recognizing the importance of doing what’s right and just for those who carry criminal records for past possession arrests,” Gov. Murphy said. “But decriminalization alone will not put the corner dealer out of business, it will not help us protect our kids, and it will not end the racial disparities we see.”
Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana may yield far more than $60 million, assuming it passes. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Colorado distributed roughly $115 million in marijuana tax receipts. Because Colorado’s population is just 5.5 million, and New Jersey has nearly 9 million people, revenue could be proportionally higher than in Colorado — especially since New Jersey borders extremely populous states like New York and Pennsylvania, both of which currently have no legal marijuana laws on the books.
According to NJ.com, the chances of New Jersey passing a legal marijuana bill are mixed. Even though Murphy is a Democrat and the legislature is under Democratic control, some Democrats haven’t yet openly embraced full-scale marijuana legalization. While Senate President Stephen Sweeney has indicated support, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has not. Both are Democrats.
If the New Jersey legislature sends a legalization bill to Gov. Murphy, it will become just the second state in the nation to legalize weed by way of the legislative process (Vermont being the first state to do so in January). If the legislature fails to pass a bill, Gov. Murphy will likely seek to legalize weed with a ballot question, similar to how Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington DC legalized cannabis in the past.
Jake Shepherd is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys poring through financial disclosure statements, spirited debate, and good scotch. He remains eternally optimistic about the Browns. Email him at jake.d.shepherd.21 (at) hotmail (dot) com.