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Lawmakers Get Serious About Legalizing Grass in the Garden State

Will Christie’s concerns about this ‘gateway drug’ go up in smoke once he’s out of office?

marijuana reform
Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, Sen. Nick Scutari, and Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon tour a marijuana cultivation facility in Colorado.

After decades of pro-pot advocacy, a few premature legislative efforts, and a misguided medical marijuana program, full-blown reform in the Garden State may no longer be a question of if, but rather when, lawmakers say.

“This is probably the single most important change that we can make in New Jersey and America going forward,” said state Senator Nick Scutari (D-Hudson), a leader of recent efforts to legalize marijuana in the state. “This type of industry, based on what we've seen and researched, has the overall ability to reduce crime, to increase the chances of people getting jobs out of college and later on, and produce a boom for the economy in terms of all the jobs that it creates directly, not to mention the individual patient benefits.”

Fresh from a fact-finding tour of Colorado’s booming cannabis industry, Scutari and a bipartisan cadre of legislators joined together yesterday to hail the prospect of marijuana legalization in New Jersey. They argued that the benefits such a change could bring to the state, beginning with its potential to stimulate the economy but also its likeliness to lower crimes rates and help sick patients, greatly outweigh any potential negatives, of which they said they see few.

They also said it’s only a matter of time before New Jersey, whose own medical marijuana program they criticized as being “in-name only,” joins a growing list of other states to experiment with cannabis legalization in recent years.

“I just wish all 120 legislators saw what we saw,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “Think about the benefits. I was on board before we went, but I'm absolutely sold that this industry can be well-regulated and it's safe.”

“I'm committed to it,” he added. “We're going to have a new governor in January 2018, and Nick will be working on the legislation right on up to that, and as soon as the governor gets situated, if we're all still here, we're going to move quickly on it.”

Sweeney and Scutari were both part of the legislative delegation that returned this week from a trip to Colorado, where they spent three days getting a firsthand look at how the western state is faring since becoming the first in the country to approve marijuana for recreational use in 2013. They met with state regulators and legislators who described how the industry operates, and toured state-of-the-art research facilities and dispensaries where the drug is grown and sold.

What they saw, they said, was a thriving and closely-managed business that lawmakers would be smart to emulate in New Jersey.

“The sky hasn't fallen,” Scutari said. “In fact, these (facilities) are in neighborhoods and downtowns that you'd be proud to say that you represent or live in.” “When you went into these facilities, it was like going into the mall in Bridgewater, one of the jewelry stores. Everything was clean, secure,under glass,” said state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset), who added he is “open-minded on this issue.”

The main sponsor of ongoing legislation to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, Scutari had taken a similar trip to study Colorado’s marijuana industry in June, when he said he learned initially about how such reform efforts might be handled in New Jersey. Colorado is one of four states — Alaska, Oregon, and Washington are also on the list — that currently permit recreational marijuana, and the law has had wide ranging impacts on everything from the state’s economy to crime and addiction rates.

Nine other states, including California, Florida and Massachusetts, will also vote next month on proposals allowing recreational or medical use of marijuana.

According to various sources, marijuana sales in Colorado have produced $150 million in new revenue based on a 27.9 percent tax rate. But Scutari and others yesterday said the industry has also create close to 29,000 jobs, led to an 81 percent decrease in the crime rate, and driven down opioid use by 27 percent. They note that New Jersey also wrestles with those problems, and would likely see similar changes if it were to pass its own marijuana reform law.

Earlier this year, a report by New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform and the liberal-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that the state could eventually generate $305 million in annual revenue by legalizing recreational marijuana and phasing in a 25 percent sales tax. The analysis was based in part on estimates that roughly 366,000 New Jersey residents over age 21 currently use marijuana on a monthly basis, consuming a combined 2.5 million ounces each year.

Such tax revenues could go a long way toward helping to assuage New Jersey’s budget problems, Scutari said. But he said it could also help fix a broken criminal justice system, in which penalties for carrying even a small amount of the drug can be harsh and fall disproportionately on African-Americans, despite marijuana use among the group being on par with that of whites. There’s also the effect it could have on the state’s heroin and opioid epidemic, which has become a major issue for many lawmakers, including Gov. Chris Christie.

Scutari commented, “Why should we continue to do the same thing over and over for a hundred years and expect something different? It's a completely failed drug war, we have to move on, we have to help people with their careers, and we have to drive the economy. This will help drive the economy.”

Exactly how a marijuana legalization law would look in New Jersey remains unclear, though, and Scutari said he’ll continue to modify his legislation in light of the new information the delegation acquired. While he said recreational cannabis will be “taxed heavily”, and that counties and towns would be free to levy their own additional excise tax on the drug, although lawmakers haven’t nailed down a specific rate. Nor are they sure how it would be sold, whether in designated dispensaries as is in Colorado or in convenience and liquor stores, though Scutari said the former model has worked well in Colorado.

Legislators did say they hope to merge any new law with the state’s already existing medical marijuana program, which allows patients to receive a medical marijuana recommendation from a certified physician and apply for a state-issued New Jersey Medical Marijuana Card program to purchase the drug. Implemented in 2010 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, the program has been criticized by cannabis advocates who argue it’s narrowly-focused.

Christie, a Republican and former U.S. attorney, is against the kind of reform lawmakers yesterday said they hope to seek, having called marijuana a “gateway” to other, harder drugs like heroin. But Sweeney noted that the two-term executive will be leaving office in 2018 and is likely to be replaced by a Democrat, given the weakened state of New Jersey’s GOP under Christie and the fact that Democrats already have a strong and well-moneyed candidate in line for the nomination.

Phil Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has already voiced his support for full-scale marijuana legalization in the state. Sweeney said lawmakers will be ready to move forward with a bill — as opposed to a constitutional amendment, which Colorado enacted — as soon as the new governor takes office.

“We have road still to travel but I think this has been a remarkable effort,” said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden). “I am confident that whatever decision New Jersey makes going forward, it will be well thought out, well disciplined, and evidence based.”

Greenwald and other lawmakers did acknowledge the potential dangers of widespread marijuana availability, including the possibility that it could end up in the hands of underage individuals and that a “homegrown” provision included in Colorado’s law that legislators said was too loosely regulated could lead to black-market marijuana sales. He said lawmakers and residents still need further education and exposure to the issue, though he called the current effort a “thoughtful approach that crosses partisan lines to solve problems.”

Other lawmakers that joined Scutari on the trip included Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R-Burlington), Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), and Assemblyman Jim Kennedy (D-Union).

“Let me say that the biggest takeaway from this trip is that marijuana legalization is no joke,” said O’Scanlon. “It is a serious policy discussion, both pro and against. I'm not here today to endorse legalization. What I am here to say is that as we move through this deliberative process, it's every legislator's job to get the kind of information that we got. So far, the evidence and data that we have favors legalization by a pretty wide margin.”

Leading marijuana reform advocates in the state, for their part, say lawmakers’ interest in legalization is long overdue.

“We recognize the fault of the medicinal marijuana program and that legalization remains the most efficient and effective way to meets the needs of some medical patients in New Jersey that would benefit from marijuana therapy,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. “But we also recognize the harm that the current policy is producing in our state. Marijuana is called a gateway drug, but it's really a gateway to the criminal justice system. So the laws against marijuana are really much more dangerous and destructive to society than marijuana itself.”

Estimates put the number of patients New Jersey’s medical marijuana program is reaching around 9,000, but Wolinski believes it to be closer to 6,000 in a state of 9 million people. He said the program has been largely ineffective, limiting patients’ access to treatment with too few locations and by not offering enough “qualifying conditions,” such as chronic pain outside cancer and HIV or neurological conditions outside PTSD, which Christie added to the program last month.

“Consider how many pharmacies there are in New Jersey,” Wolski said. “What if you had five CVS in the state? Would you say you had an effective drug distribution system?”

Wolski said he’d like to see cannabis treated more like an over-the-counter drug, which would make it cheaper and easier to obtain for people in need. Making it available legally in regulated outlets would help accomplish that, he said.

“When the people do have a qualifying condition, do manage to jump through the hoops, they find it unaffordable,” he said. If you're on disability, how are you going to afford the 100 dollars a month just for the marijuana, not to mention the 100 dollars or more you have to pay for each physician visit? Because right now it really is like a prescription drug.”

On top of that, New Jersey medical marijuana patients are not allowed to cultivate their medical marijuana, which is one area Wolski said he broke with lawmakers yesterday. Scutari cited Colorado’s homegrown provision as an area of the legislation that needs work, but Wolski, a registered nurse, said home cultivation is an important part of full-scale cannabis legalization.

“To me, home cultivation is so empowering to patients. It really allows them to produce their own medicine, gives them access to this substance regardless of your income level. So for me, home cultivation is a very important provision. Just the very fact of growing a plant can be a very therapeutic thing, especially for a dying person.”

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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