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State to Reconsider Marijuana Classification as Dangerous Drug

Reclassification will not ensure legalization or decriminalization

marijuana

New Jersey officials plan to reconsider the potential dangers and possible benefits of marijuana use, a process that is separate from legalizing or decriminalizing the substance, but could impact its use in medical research or how it is regulated.

The state's Division of Consumer Affairs, under the attorney general's office, announced last week it would revisit how marijuana is classified under the New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, which currently lists pot as a Schedule I drug - the most strictly regulated category that also includes cocaine, heroin, and LSD. These drugs are considered highly addictive and without any accepted medical value.

The division also said it would withdraw a legal appeal filed under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who was replaced in January by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. The appeal had challenged what some considered a landmark ruling in October from the state's Superior Court, which encouraged public officials to revisit the current marijuana classification, suggesting the listing was inconsistent with current medical practices.

While the court did not dictate what the state should do, the judges found that claiming the herb had no medicinal use "strains credulity beyond acceptable boundaries."

Gateway drug

Murphy has advocated for legalizing pot, for both racial equality and economic reasons, and is currently reviewing the state's medical marijuana program, which has been criticized as overly restrictive. Christie essentially considered marijuana a gateway drug that led to other addictions.

New Jersey is one of more than two-dozen states that have initiated medical marijuana programs that enable certain patients to obtain the drug, and dozens more have decriminalized or legalized pot in recent years. That said, it is also one of many states that - like the federal government - continue to list marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous type of controlled substance.

DCA officials will now develop a process to review the drug's current status in the schedule, which classifies controlled substances on a scale of I (the most dangerous, without medical benefit) to V (drugs that are far less addictive and have clinical value). The division promised an "evidence-based decision-making process" and said it would soon announce how the public could also provide input.

No shortcut to legalization

But the process will not provide a shortcut to state leaders who are now exploring several routes to loosening New Jersey's current marijuana regulations. "Rescheduling a drug is different than legalizing or decriminalizing it. Although rescheduling a drug can affect how strictly it is regulated, any action by the Division to reschedule marijuana will not result in its legalization or decriminalization," DCA officials said.

Murphy prioritized legalizing recreational marijuana during his campaign last year, a change he said would help address an ongoing pattern of racial injustice in which African-Americans are far more likely than whites to be arrested for pot possession. He has also estimated that the move could generate as much as $300 million annually in new tax revenue.

But this proposal has triggered a growing number of concerns, including from some African-American lawmakers who fear it could actually lead to higher rates of drug use. As an option, lawmakers are now considering a measure that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, requiring fees, not criminal penalties for possession of up to 10 grams of the weed.

A recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that a majority of Garden State residents support changes to the existing law, and 42 percent are in favor of legalizing marijuana; 27 percent prefer to maintain the current status, permitting legal medicinal use only.

On schedule

The federal drug-scheduling provision, signed in 1970, was an attempt to create a comprehensive system to regulate a growing number of legal and illegal drugs, which had been regulated by hundreds of separate laws. State versions followed, including New Jersey's law, in 1971, which followed a similar analysis to balance addictive potential with established medical benefit.

Last fall's court decision made New Jersey the first state to be forced to reconsider this classification, according to Joseph Linares, one of the attorneys who challenged the system. Linares and colleagues from Walsh Law, in Newark, filed papers in the Superior Court questioning DCA's 2015 decision to not re-examine marijuana's classification.

That decision followed a 2014 petition filed by Steven Kadonsky, who was convicted two decades ago of marijuana trafficking under the state's "drug kingpin" statute and sentenced to life in prison. Kadonsky said the law, and his punishment, didn't make sense when the state's own medical marijuana law - adopted in 2010 - stated that pot was beneficial for dozens of health conditions.

Linares said last week he and his client would now monitor the state's reclassification process.

Genny Barbour, a Maple Shade teen with autism and a seizure disorder, also joined Kadonsky's fight in an effort to ease her own access to prescription cannabis oil. While Barbour can legally obtain the drug under the state's medical marijuana program, its Schedule I status prevents her from accessing her medicine at school, severely restricting her ability to attend class.

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