Legal Weed in NJ: Are We Ready?

Murphy’s pledge to legalize marijuana in New Jersey could be quickly fulfilled.

Photo courtesy of Michael Fischer from Pexels

Legalizing marijuana in New Jersey has overnight moved to the front burner with the election of Phil Murphy as the state’s 56th governor. The Democrat will have a long list of campaign promises vying for his attention when he takes office on January 16; legal weed in New Jersey may be the first promise to be fulfilled.

A bill by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has already been drafted. If approved and signed into law, the bill would make New Jersey the ninth state to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Murphy has made his position quite clear: “I’m all in,” he proclaimed repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Scutari predicts his bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey will be signed into law within Murphy’s first 100 days, or by the Legislature’s summer recess at the latest. He concedes it will take some political elbow grease to secure the needed votes, particularly in the Senate. “I have science and the right ideas on my side,” says Scutari. He also has Senate President Stephen Sweeney on his side. (Following the recent elections, the Democrats hold a 10-seat majority in the Senate, effective in January; Scutari says he already has two Republican votes.)

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), sponsor of a bill in the lower house that duplicates the Senate version, thinks legal marijuana in New Jersey is inevitable, likening it the gay marriage movement that swept the nation in recent years. He may be right; support for legal weed in New Jersey is at an all-time high. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows 59 percent of New Jerseyans support legal marijuana, according to a Quinnipiac University survey.

If and when we have legal marijuana in New Jersey, state government would create a projected $1 billion-plus industry with great growth potential. Taxing that revenue would produce about $300 million a year for the state coffers, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, based on a study indicating that nearly 366,000 people in New Jersey over the age of 21 illegally consume about 2.5 million ounces a year.

READ MORE: Here’s Where You Can Legally Smoke Marijuana.

During the campaign, Murphy consistently downplayed the tax revenue argument, insisting repeatedly it’s the “last reason” he supports legal marijuana in New Jersey. But in a brief moment of candor at a Maplewood town hall meeting during the campaign he did concede, “God knows we can use every penny we can find. “ Then, Murphy moved immediately back on script, stressing the social and moral reasons for legalization, and going right to his applause line with a liberal audience: “The gap between white and non-white incarcerated persons in New Jersey is the widest gap in the United States.”

A 2016 report by the Sentencing Project supports Murphy: In 2014, African-Americans made up about 13 percent of the state population, but 60 percent of the incarcerated population. Further, New Jersey has the nation’s 10th worst disparity among Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in prison.

“Low-end drug crimes is the biggest contributor to that disparity,” Murphy said during a campaign debate, “so that’s the reason why we want to legalize marijuana, not because we can make money off it.”

An ACLU analysis of marijuana arrests in New Jersey further supports Murphy’s argument. African-Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, even though usage rates are similar.

About 25,000 people were arrested in New Jersey for marijuana possession in 2015, according to Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for ACLU-NJ, and “there are a host of collateral consequences that come with just one arrest,” she says. They include jail time and fines, loss of employment, loss of student loans, loss of housing and even loss of custody of children.

“Nothing has done more damage to this country than our archaic drug laws, particularly pertaining to marijuana,” Scutari says.

It’s hard to argue against the social justice case—and even the most ardent legalization opponents don’t try. Instead, they suggest that the problem can be solved by decriminalization. During the gubernatorial campaign, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, the Republican candidate who lost to Murphy, said she supports the decriminalization of marijuana, which would solve the problem short of outright legalization.

Jeanette Hoffman, a New Jersey GOP consultant, echoes Guadagno’s stance. “If the true issue for politicians is social injustice—and not raising revenue for the state budget—then a much more common sense approach would be to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Hoffman says. “You can accomplish the goal of keeping people out of prison for low-level pot offenses without encouraging widespread marijuana use and the negative consequences that come with legalization.”

A decriminalization bill did pass in the Assembly in 2012, but the Senate refused to follow suit.

Bill Caruso, a lawyer and longtime Democratic insider, has been advocating legalization for 10 years, and was involved in writing the medical marijuana bill. He says the decriminalization argument doesn’t fly.

“You don’t get the revenue, you don’t get the research and development [jobs] and even the fees are problematic,” he says. More importantly, he stresses, “We need to change the culture. There’s a stigma attached to cannabis… even with medical marijuana.” He adds that legalization is a matter of racial and social justice.

Scutari says decriminalization is a “big mistake” that would “create an open-air drug markets.” The goal, Scutari says, “is to get rid of the drug dealers.”

Both Caruso and Houenou take it a step further, calling for expungement of prior marijuana possession convictions.

“Legalization is one step forward in righting these wrongs,” Houenou asserts, “but it must come with concrete measures to repair those harms to communities of color.”

Scutari and Gusciora support expungement, but believe that for political reasons, it will have to come later in separate legislation. “We have to walk first,” Scutari says.

At least one Democratic legislator is not convinced. State Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, says he would want public hearings to explore the pitfalls of recreational marijuana. “We know there are negative factors that we will need to safeguard against, from children’s access to marijuana-infused edibles, to motor vehicle accidents caused by impaired driving, to the effect of marijuana on babies and the impact of legalization on communities of color,” Rice said in a prepared statement.

Outgoing Governor Chris Christie has been the state’s most strident opponent of marijuana legalization, claiming that Democrats are willing to “poison our kids” to receive “blood money” from the taxes pot sales will bring in.

“We are in the midst of the public health crisis on opiates,” Christie said during a speech at a forum on substance abuse hosted by the New Jersey Hospital Association in Princeton. “But people are saying pot’s okay. This is nothing more than crazy liberals who want to say everything’s okay. Baloney!” Christie has doubled down on that position in his role as chairman of President Trump’s opioid commission.

Christie’s gateway argument is supported by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and Columbia University.

Their research, published this year, suggests that marijuana users may be more likely than nonusers to misuse prescription opioids.

But scientific opinion is mixed on the issue.

While opioid fatalities are rising across the country, marijuana legalization in Colorado led to a “reversal” of overdose deaths in that state, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study found that in the two years after Colorado implemented its recreational marijuana law, opioid deaths fell by 6.5 percent.

Another study in 2014 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found a 25-percent decrease in prescription drug overdoses in states with medical marijuana laws that allow chronic pain patients to participate.

New Jersey legalized marijuana for medical applications in 2010. There are about 10,000 registered patients, but the pace and reach of the program has been roundly criticized by patients and their advocates who blame Christie for dragging out the program’s implementation. They say New Jersey is among the most rigid and restrictive of the 29 states with medical marijuana programs.

New Jersey’s permits only those afflicted with one of a dozen conditions to obtain cannabis. Among the approved conditions are terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and muscular spasticity. The initial report from the state’s Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel, issued in July, calls for 43 more conditions to be added to the program, including chronic pain.

The Colorado opioid study also warns that while legal marijuana may reduce opioid deaths it could also be increasing motor vehicle fatalities. That and other studies prompted AAA to oppose legalization.

“Some of this is still challenging,” Murphy concedes. “Driving cars and things like that.”

Many people don’t realize marijuana impairs driving skills, says Cathleen Lewis, AAA Northeast director of public affairs. What’s more, unlike alcohol, there currently is no way to accurately test for marijuana on the spot. That makes it difficult to enforce laws on impaired driving.

Lewis proposes that, should cannabis be legalized in New Jersey, the Legislature should dedicate funds from marijuana tax revenue toward a comprehensive education campaign. Further, she says, money should be earmarked to develop testing, as well as training for law enforcement officers to detect marijuana impairment.

“It’s not a real issue,” Scutari argues. Smoking and driving is illegal now and will remain illegal. “We’ll track it and remain vigilant,” he says, adding that he supports funding to train officers in drug recognition.

There are other demands on the tax revenue. The ACLU, for example, wants to see funds dedicated for social programs in the minority communities that have been adversely affected by current marijuana laws.

Again, Gusciora agrees that these proposals have merit, but will also have to wait for further legislation. You can accomplish only so much out of the gate, he says, adding, “We also need to fix our pension system and settle our debts.”

Legal Pot in NJ: Here’s What’s in the Bill

Scutari’s bill would:

• Decriminalize marijuana possession of up to 50 grams.

• Establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement in the state Attorney General’s Office. The office would create the rules used to govern the legal market of growers and sellers.

• Allow people 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of dried marijuana, 16 ounces of edible products infused with cannabis, 72 ounces in liquid form and seven grams of marijuana concentrate.

• Continue to prohibit marijuana use in public places.

• Impose a sales tax on recreational sales of legal weed in New Jersey beginning at 7 percent in the first year, climbing to 10 percent in the second year, and jumping 5 percent more each year until it reaches 25 percent. Taxes on medical marijuana would be abolished.

• Allow individual towns to decide if they will allow pot sales. Towns that don’t participate won’t be entitled to share in tax revenue generated by sales of legal pot.

• Give the six existing medical marijuana dispensaries nonprofit first shot at selling recreational cannabis.

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