TRENTON — On top of an all-consuming presidential race, a ho-hum U.S. Senate campaign and a number of competitive House races, New Jersey voters will be deciding three public questions – including one clearing the way for the legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults.

Gov. Phil Murphy said marijuana legalization will transform New Jersey.

“The fact is that the current marijuana laws stifle both social justice and economic development,” he said.

Murphy had pledged as a candidate in 2017 to get legalization passed in his first 100 days in office. He has now been governor for 1,000 days.

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Advocates say nearly $150 million a year is spent prosecuting marijuana cases in New Jersey and that money could be better spent elsewhere. Todd Edwards, political action chair for the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, said many of the 32,000-plus arrested are tagged with records that keep them from things such as getting professional licenses.

“Legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis will address the ongoing tremendous harms caused by cannabis prohibition laws, which have disproportionately harmed communities of color,” Edwards said.

While advocates for marijuana legalization prefer to emphasize the social-justice gains they say would follow, the public question also carries with it the prospect for an estimated 30,000 new jobs if the estimated billion-dollar cannabis market in the state is brought above ground.

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said there’s a big opportunity for new job creation.

“We’ll be able to really move forward with the creation of an industry I would hope that would rival the alcohol industry,” Scutari said. “Think of all the jobs that have been created as a result of the alcohol industry – bars, restaurants associated with alcohol use, distributors, manufacturers, transporters, service workers.”

Attorney Jessica Gonzalez said there’s also an ancillary market of other related jobs, such as lawyers and accountants.

“We always compare it to the gold rush where the folks who made the most money were the folks who were selling the shovels,” Gonzalez said. “And so as this industry continues to grow, the ancillary market is going to continue to grow faster. And as even reports have shown, the ancillary market is double the size of the plant-touching market.”

Attorney Bill Caruso of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform said it has the potential to boost tourism – perhaps more weekend flights to Atlantic City, or people coming in from New York and Pennsylvania.

“This will fit in to a lot of where we already have built-in tourism,” Caruso said.

Advocates say they’re a little worried that people will accidentally skip the ballot question, which is on the back of the mail-in ballot sent to around 99% of registered voters.

But they appear confident it will pass. The latest poll on the topic, released Friday by Fairleigh Dickinson University, finds 61% of likely voters support the constitutional amendment and 29% oppose. Support is up from 42% in 2018.

In the FDU poll, legalization is favored 71% to 20% among Democrats; 52% to 40% among Republicans; 66% to 27% among men; 57% to 30% among women; 77% to 9% among voters age 18 to 34; 63% to 29% among voters age 35 to 54; and 51% to 40% among voters 55 and older.

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Scutari said the follow-up legislation that would be required after the referendum passes is already being prepared and that he intends for it to cancel all pending charges for possession of marijuana.

“People that got arrested this week, next week – if we get it passed, I’d like to see those charges to be gone,” Scutari said. “Even though it’s still illegal as of today, I don’t see the sense in prosecuting those people, quite frankly.”

Scutari also said that if the question is approved, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal should also issue a directive to law enforcement to stop arrests, even though the amendment would take effect Jan. 1.

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