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Legalizing Marijuana in NJ: Where’s the Bill, Who Benefits, Who Pays?

New Jersey is on the cusp of legalizing recreational cannabis. But with no legislation ready, questions — and fears — are being raised

Marijuana smoking
Credit: NJTV News

Gov. Phil Murphy said marijuana would be legal in New Jersey within his first 100 days in office. Now, it’s Day 202 and there’s no bill legalizing it to be found. As lawmakers debate the features of that inevitable legislation — polls say a majority of voters support the move to legalize — New Jersey residents want solid details of what that would look like.

At two panel events last week, New Jerseyans from different parts of the state asked experts and advocates on both sides of the debate how cannabis markets will impact their neighborhoods. The biggest issues that surfaced among many different groups included fears about outside commercial entities taking over and the impact on communities of color.

One panel presented by Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJ-RAMP), an anti-legalization advocacy group, was held at Stockton University and featured former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Another community panel in Camden was hosted by pro-legalization group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR).

“The part that I’m struggling with is, we’re talking about legalizing recreational marijuana and the tons of revenue it may make at some time, but I still don’t hear anything concrete,” New Jersey Green Party co-chair Gary Frazier said at the Camden gathering.

Law enforcement agencies cautious

Several versions of legislation to legalize cannabis have been presented over the past few months, though none have garnered enough support for a vote in the Legislature. Senate President Sweeney has been vocal about supporting legalization alongside Murphy, and some experts speculate there is a hold-up in the Assembly preventing anything from pushing through; but on Friday, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin put some pressure on his legislative body by announcing his support for adult use during his segment "Speak to the Speaker" on WCTC Radio.

Law enforcement is also moving cautiously forward. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal proclaimed that the state will refrain from prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests until the end of the month, and possibly longer.

Florio to join board of cannabis-edibles company

With the governor currently out of the state, and few legislative sessions scheduled for the State House this month, it looks like it could be some time before any bill is posted. But, without something for the public to consider, fear and speculation are oozing into many local communities.

Speaking to a room of around 160 majority-white individuals at Stockton University in Galloway, Kennedy drew attention to the rapidly expanding marijuana industry and the inevitability of “big business” moving into the state to open shops. Indeed, it was reported on Thursday that former Governor Jim Florio will be joining the board of cannabis-edibles manufacturer Nuka Enterprises of Colorado to support “Nuka's expansion initiatives into New Jersey through his law firm, Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Capelli.”

Kennedy: Murphy is promoting a ‘fallacy’

Patrick Kennedy
Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy

“The government doesn’t stand a chance of regulating this,” Kennedy said. “Once the horse gets out of the barn... the notion that the government can regulate it is slim to none.”

Kennedy also called out Murphy for promoting a “fallacy” that legalization will do nothing but improve conditions for communities of color.

NJ-RAMP policy advisor Ijeoma Opara said that as a social worker and youth and family therapist in New York and New Jersey, she’s seen the effects that addiction and drug abuse have had on people of color and the limited availability and accessibility of services to help. She said she favors decriminalization and an expanded healthcare system to help those struggling with addiction before considering legalization.

“How are you going to address the negative impact that this will have on communities that already lack the resources to treat the problems that are already happening?” Opara asked. “It’s insulting to say legalizing marijuana is somehow going to help people of color when you’re not addressing the other systemic issues that are hurting us.”

Individual towns across New Jersey are also beginning to grow wary. So far, more than 20 towns and three counties have acted to ban legalization of marijuana in their communities.

Mayor: ‘How do we enforce our ordinance?’

Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Stephen Reid, who attended the panel at Stockton, said he’s worried about legalization. The borough council was the first to unanimously approve a full ban on marijuana sales, including of medical marijuana dispensaries and any recreational retail storefronts. But as the state government begins to lean more toward statewide legalization, he said he’s not sure how his municipality will handle it.

Stephen Reid
Stephen Reid, Mayor of Point Pleasant Beach

“What we’re facing is a huge boulder,” Reid said. “We said ‘no’ to any pot shops in our town... we’re very worried about it. How do we enforce our ordinance when it’s legal statewide? How do we prosecute drugged driving? We’re going to have a lot of problems with that. It’s going to cost us money and energy on enforcement.”

The list of municipalities and towns that have passed resolutions banning cannabis sales is overwhelmingly suburban, leading those in urban communities to fear an influx of pot shops and out-of-town users in their neighborhoods.

Frazier: “What do we get?... $10 an hour janitorial job’

New Jersey Green Party co-chair Gary Frazier made this point passionately at the panel in Camden. “You come to us talking about what you want to enact in legislation... to take it out of the hands of the drug dealers and put it into the market so you can be able to sell it and bring the white boys from outside into our cities and our towns, open up these big shops and what do we get? The $10 an hour janitorial job,” Frazier said.

The Camden panel, hosted by the pro-legalization advocacy group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, featured panelists Bill Caruso, lawyer and founder of NJUMR, Dianna Houenou, Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Richard T. Smith of the New Jersey branch of the NAACP, and Hugh Giordano of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The speakers focused on how a carefully crafted legalization bill could improve conditions for communities of color across New Jersey.

Attendees at the gathering at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church in Camden were vocal about their perception that their city has been harmed by state laws before — and that marijuana legalization has the potential to make things worse.

“We can tell you more about marijuana than you could ever tell us,” Frazier said. “We’ve got the numbers on our back, we’ve got parents coming through halfway houses. So, until you [panelists] are having conversations about that, you’re wasting our time.”

Line pockets of rich investors?

Community activists and organizers fired off questions about the details of what may be the shape of legislation. How will it cycle money back into the community and not line the pockets of rich investors? How can we be sure that legal pot shops won’t overrun our neighborhoods? How exactly will this benefit our black and brown communities that have been wronged by prohibition legislation in the past?

“For the white people, when the heroin hit, it became an ‘epidemic,’” Frazier said. “We started getting all types of resources and clinics… but for years there was nothing for [minority] people who got addicted to drugs... who went to prison and came home with fines and restitution and may never be able to get jobs again... Things need to be put in place for those who are going to be re-entering into society.”

Without a bill on the table, many of their questions could not be answered definitively — although the advocates repeatedly promised they would not throw their support behind any legislation that did not address those very questions. To be sure, when Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union) introduced a legalization bill in June without building in amendments to benefit minority communities, Caruso said he and many other advocates immediately pulled their support of that bill.

“These questions about expungements and re-entry, these are core components we’ve been fighting for since 2015 when [NJUMR] formed. They are going to be in this bill because there won’t be any legalization — there won’t be decriminalization, there won’t be medical expansion — unless it’s in,” Caruso said.

But with the tide pushing toward legalization sooner rather than later in the state, the experts advised concerned citizens to express their anxieties to their local leaders.

“Don’t waste your time calling Governor Murphy on this,” Caruso said. “Start educating your mayors and your local council people... talk to your folks here about what you want to see and how you can get involved. That’s the way to do this together.”

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