New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has backed marijuana decriminalization as a stop-gap measure until voters have the opportunity to decide on legalization in November 2020.

Murphy previously opposed decriminalization as he argued that it would effectively legitimize drug dealing on the black market. He has now decided to endorse it to provide “critical short-term relief” ahead of a ballot measure on legalization in 12 months’ time.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers pulled the plug on proposed legislation that would have legalized adult-use cannabis sales. They decided instead to put the question to voters in a referendum slated to take place next year.

Murphy made a campaign promise to legalize recreational marijuana, but it now looks unlikely that it will happen before 2021. Eleven states have legalized adult-use marijuana, but Illinois was the only one to do so via legislation, so there is nothing unusual in putting the issue to New Jersey voters in a referendum.

Polls have suggested that voters in the Garden State will back legalization. Yet even if they give it the thumbs-up, it would still take plenty of legislative wrangling before legal sales can actually commence.

Murphy is therefore inclined to support decriminalization in the meantime so as to avoid more people in the state being punished for cannabis use. He said that around 600 people – disproportionately black and Latino – are arrested in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses, and he called this situation “totally unacceptable”.

He now wants to see a sensible decriminalization policy put in place to end this situation while awaiting the ballot on legalization. “Although I remain disappointed in the Legislature’s inability to legislatively legalize adult-use marijuana, I am optimistic that the people of New Jersey, who overwhelmingly support legalization, will vote to do so, and when they do, we will take a critical and long overdue step for real criminal justice reform,” said Murphy.

Earlier this year, Murphy signed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act into law, significantly expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana program. It provided licenses for an extra 108 businesses, including 54 dispensary licenses, 30 processing permits, and 24 cultivation licenses, spread across the state.

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