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Ciattarelli isn’t crazy about N.J. legalizing weed. Could he slow things down if elected?

NJ.com logo NJ.com 10/11/2021 Amanda Hoover, nj.com
New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli rolls out his plan to lower property taxes while visiting downtown Jersey City which he claims most residents don't pay enough compare to other municipalities like Toms River.  Wednesday, August 18, 2021. Jersey City, N.J. © Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli rolls out his plan to lower property taxes while visiting downtown Jersey City which he claims most residents don't pay enough compare to other municipalities like Toms River. Wednesday, August 18, 2021. Jersey City, N.J.

EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is co-hosting a Cannabis Career Fair & Business Expo on Nov. 17 at Stockton University. Tickets here.

New Jersey is closer than ever to selling weed to people 21 and older, but could a new governor bring more delays?

Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, agree on few things, and legal cannabis isn’t one of them. But the stakes are lower they were four years ago, when the fate of legal marijuana hinged on the governor’s race. Now, New Jersey has a cannabis legalization law in place, along with a commission that has already established detailed rules and regulations for the legal weed industry and says it will soon begin licensing new marijuana businesses.

When Murphy, a Democrat, first ran in 2017, he made cannabis legalization a key part of his platform. It would notoriously take three years, a ballot referendum and months of haggling with the state Legislature to get it done.

Ciattarelli has said he supports decriminalization but not legalization. So, ending arrests for marijuana is OK in his book, but launching a legal weed industry that enables and promotes is a step too far. Murphy initially said the opposite as the state struggled and failed to legalize cannabis through the Legislature. He and other Democrats worried that decriminalization would boost the legacy market, illegal dealers.

And when Murphy ultimately signed the laws to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, he cited social justice as his chief motivator, outweighing the lure of tax revenue and jobs.

Ciattarelli has criticized that stance.

“We could have addressed social injustice with the decriminalization of marijuana, not the approval of recreational marijuana,” Ciattarelli said during the first gubernatorial debate last month. “And it’s not an accident that of our 565 towns in New Jersey, 400 have now passed local ordinances that have said no dispensary in my town.”

As of mid-August, some 70% of municipalities (about 400) had banned cannabis businesses. Some have begun to reconsider now that regulations on the industry are available.

Ciattarelli also takes issue with the new criminal penalties for police officers who stop and search underage people for marijuana and alcohol.

The Republican candidate has also said he would push to reverse marijuana legalization if the rollout does not go smoothly.

“Jack believes that New Jersey voters were misled on the marijuana referendum, evidenced by the vast majority of New Jersey municipalities rejecting the idea of locating dispensaries in their community,” Stami Williams, a spokeswoman for Ciattarelli, said in a statement.

“Phil Murphy and the Democrats even tried to ban cops from notifying parents if a minor child was caught with drugs and alcohol. Who does that?! Now that voters have seen the result of this new law — and seen how extremists in Trenton like Phil Murphy have used it to handcuff our police — it makes sense that New Jersey voters have a chance to make their voice heard again.”

Murphy signed another law in March that allows police to notify parents when their children are caught with marijuana or alcohol, walking back part of the original legal marijuana law.

Reversing the referendum would not only prove widely unpopular (67% of voters said yes to the ballot question last year), but isn’t so easily done.

To put the question back on the ballot, seeking to undo a constitutional amendment, both the state Senate and Assembly would need to approve it by either three-fifths majority in one year or by simple majorities in two consecutive years.

In a Democratic-controlled Legislature, getting an anti-legalization question before voters would be all but impossible.

“It’s really unlikely that he would be in a position to do something about this,” said Joseph Patten, a professor of political science at Monmouth University. “And the political fallout, the boomerang effect on trying to stop it, I don’t imagine he would want to expend all this political capital on doing this.”

“I suspect there could be some ways, through executive orders, to slow it down,” Patten said. But “it is a constitutional amendment, and the governor is responsible for enforcing the law and not subverting it.”

A reluctant governor has hampered the industry before. Former Gov. Chris Christie’s made the medical marijuana program among the more restrictive in the nation after inheriting it from his predecessor Gov. Jon Corzine.

Through the state Department of Health, Christie kept the first round of licensing small. And the medical program languished as Christie sought guidance on the clash of federal and state law on marijuana. The state was also slow to adopt rules to govern medical marijuana. Nearly three years passed between the law’s signing and the opening of the first dispensary in Montclair.

“The governor could severely hamper the nascent cannabis industry if inspired to do so,” said Fruqan Mouzon, chair of the Cannabis Practice Group at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, and the former general counsel for the state Senate Majority Office.

“We must remember that the [Cannabis Regulatory Commission] – while ‘independent’ – is an executive branch agency. Which means, they are a part of the governor’s administration,” he said.

For example, a governor could try to slow down the process of issuing licenses (which is already delayed) or put pressure on the commission to issue new regulations, he said.

Christie inherited a medical program that had not been set up. Instead, it was merely signed into law (which happened the day before he took office). With the commission already seated and having adopted its rules, Ciattarellii’s could have less influence.

But reorganizing government workers could be another way to slow things down.

“Even if there is a plan in place, he could halt the people that implement the plan,” said Ariel Alvarez, an associate professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “He could certainly maneuver things internally so that the plan does not get rolled out as quickly or as smoothly.”

A version of this story originally appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider, a weekly subscriber-based trade journal and events group produced by NJ Advance Media, which also publishes NJ.com, The Star-Ledger and other affiliated papers. For more information, email staff here.

Amanda Hoover can be reached at ahoover@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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