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NJ and Legalized Marijuana: National Model or Petri Dish?

At NJ Spotlight roundtable on marijuana reform, participants say get ready for discussions to break out into the open — and look for legalization sooner rather than later

Andrew Freedman
Andrew Freedman

New Jerseyans should “assume” legalization of marijuana is coming and sooner than most think, according to experts and lobbyists at an NJ Spotlight roundtable on Friday. Right now, most of the discussion has been behind closed doors, as legislators count votes and visit other states that have already taken the plunge. Although Gov. Phil Murphy ran on a promise to legalize marijuana, and even assumed millions in tax revenues in his 2018–2019 budget, the discussion in Trenton has so far been pretty quiet.

That’s about to change, claimed panelists, almost all of whom were supportive of the legislation. They dived deep into the policy implications of legalization at the event in Hamilton last week, but the conversation boiled down to two opposing attitudes: If the state were to legalize, will New Jersey be acting as a national, certainly regional, model for other states? Or will it be a petri dish festering with unanticipated problems?

Frank Greenagel
Frank Greenagel

“I want to let other states be the Petri dish,” said panelist Frank Greenagel, a clinical social worker and representative from legalization opposition group NJ RAMP (Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy). “What is the rush? Wait till 2020. Wait till 2022. Wait till 2024.”

There are currently two major bills under consideration in Trenton that would legalize adult recreational use of cannabis, S-830 emanates from the Senate and is sponsored by Nicholas Scutari (D-Union); the Assembly version is A-3819. Another Assembly bill (A-3581) is also on the docket.

The marijuana czar

Andrew Freedman, the former director of Marijuana Coordination for the state of Colorado, the “marijuana czar” and now a partner in his own consultancy, Freedman and Koski, gave the keynote address, in which he described the Colorado experience and lessons learned. He assured attendees that many of the kinks have been worked out in that state, although it is an iterative process.

Freedman, who claims to be agnostic on the issue, noted that many of the misconceptions and frightening statistics (increase in youth use, more calls to poison control centers, and forth) can be attributed to misinterpreted data and what’s known as “naive user” statistics. When a new product comes on the market, Freedman said, there are going to be a lot of questions and instances of misuse simply because many consumers are new to the cannabis world.

“When we dig down in this data what you're actually seeing is naive users using new products and having a bad experience,” Freedman said. He added that since enacting public education campaigns and better identification of doses with edibles (don’t eat the whole bar of chocolate!), they’ve seen the number of poison control calls go down significantly. He recommended New Jersey develop similar public education programs ahead of time.

Driving under the influence

Freedman also drew attention to driving-while-high data. Statistics show in states that have legalized, the number of DUIDs (driving under the influence of drugs) has increased, but there are many elements at play.

“The data (for DUIDs) is way too messy. I would not look at it. It will not give you a good trendline of what's happened,” Freedman said. He pointed out that with legalization comes better law enforcement training and clearer laws against driving while high, inflating those DUID numbers accordingly. Still, every panelist agreed that popular messaging and data that shows driving while high makes for a safer or less risky experience is harmful and incorrect.

“Because you go slower on the highway, it does not make you a safe driver. That (claim) is actually really bad.” Freedman said the focus should instead be on figuring out how to launch a public education campaign “where people have to admit that they put other people's lives in danger when they smoke and drive. That is absolutely paramount.”

Bill Caruso
Bill Caruso

Although there is still no breathalyzer test for marijuana, that’s not an insurmountable problem, according to William J. Caruso, an attorney with Archer & Greiner P.C. and board member of the lobbying group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. Police should be trained to identify drivers who are high, and they can be asked to take a blood test that can be used in court.

Other, more reliable statistics, included how marijuana arrests have continued to go down significantly. (Legalization would be limited to possession and licensed businesses. It would still be illegal on the black market.) In general, Freedman said, there is a limit to what data can tell us, given the short amount of time since legalization and the lack of statistically solid research. There are factors that experts just do not have a comprehensive grasp of yet, and much of the risk is based on learning from other state’s mistakes and adapting solutions to fit the population, he said.

The issue of how to deal with money and the federal government was initially a problem but not so much anymore. Freedman said he wouldn’t recommend a “public bank,” but he was referring to one that’s licensed by the federal government. Instead, he argued, there are credit unions and community banks that are available to work with the cannabis businesses.

Taking care of business

Driving and banking may be some of the speed bumps that New Jersey will encounter, but the business factors are well known. Depending on what passes in the legislation, the state will be responsible for awarding up to four licenses — ones for growing, processing, selling, and possibly transporting weed. The proposed legislation, while it outlines requirements and numbers of these licenses, does not require any town to have a marijuana business located in it. But some speakers argued that many towns will see this as an opportunity and a way to find a function for empty business parks.

Caruso argued that New Jersey has an opportunity to become the national model for legalization success both financially and in the realm of social justice.

States like Colorado, California, and Massachusetts legalized marijuana through a ballot measure and were left scrambling to deal with issues such as licensing and siting making some mistakes in the process. Worse, civil rights issues as well as expungements weren’t dealt with until long after the fact. By passing legalization through the Legislature, New Jersey has the unique opportunity to build in language that would put the concerns of minority communities at the forefront, he argued..

Dianna Houenou
Dianna Houenou

As several panelists mentioned, there are thousands of New Jerseyans serving time for marijuana possession charges, up away from their families and communities. According to new ACLU data, 32,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2016. Panelist Dianna Houenou, policy counsel of the ACLU-NJ, said not only do these individuals receive jail time and fines, but they also can face deportation, job loss, housing loss, and even loss of child custody.

Caruso noted that New Jersey could outline how to create automatic expungements, so they don’t create judicial burdens, distribute licenses to minorities, and build other civil rights into marijuana legislation — something no other state has really done yet.

“We're not legalizing marijuana unless we adopt a scenario that will encompass true racial and social-justice reform. That's the enactment strategy now,” Caruso said.

Greenagel noted that without a doubt, civil rights and social justice must play a role, but he emphasized that legalization is not the way to accomplish that. He’s in favor of decriminalization first and a “wait and see” approach for recreational use, the same method touted by Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex).

NJ in no hurry

Dustin McDonald, vice president for government relations at Weedmaps, said New Jersey is not rushing at all, and is instead approaching legalization in a more measured way than almost all other states.

“There's definitely a need for more time, for more thoughtfulness in the approach. New Jersey is approaching it that way,” McDonald said. He drew attention to the medical cannabis model that Murphy recently expanded, months ahead of his desired adult-use timeline. In states like Massachusetts, which did not take the time to build out its medical model before voting on a recreational use measure, McDonald said “oftentimes those policy models fail and ultimately impose costs on taxpayers, costs on public health, and costs on public safety that take years to address.”

Many of the retailers, processors, and growers will have some relation to the medical marijuana establishment. It’s the same product, they noted, with different tax rates and dosages. McDonald said the tide is turning toward adult-use legalization nationwide, and many of the barriers legislators now fear — banking difficulties, liability laws, zoning restrictions, and others — will become nonissues or be handled by cities and towns, requiring strong executive leadership from mayors and governors.

For instance, current liability laws can be applied to marijuana use. The state will have to create an agency to deal with many issues — and find its own marijuana czar to coordinate departments. The state Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Agriculture will have to adopt regulations — some of which already exist — against the use of pesticides and the like. The attorney general’s office will have to create training programs for the police.

McDonald also anticipates big changes at the federal level.

“I worked in D.C. for 15 years as well, and over the course of that time this was a laughable issue, he said. “This was not an issue that Congress was ever taking seriously nor was the administration changing its position. You now see both events occurring.”

“I really think as we look to the new congressional session that begins in 2019, you're going to see significant reforms there …They're already starting.” — Lee Keough contributed to this story

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