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Op-Ed: The War on Cannabis Has Failed — Let’s Be Smart About Legalizing It in NJ

With the legalization of cannabis approaching for New Jersey, we can draw on the experience of other states to get it right

scott rudder
Scott Rudder

The Garden State is about to get a little “greener” thanks to the hard work and dedication of scientists, researchers, law enforcement, patients, social justice advocates and business leaders. Legalization of recreational cannabis is right around the corner. But now that we have come this far, we must ensure that we do this right by creating an industry that helps the state economically, addresses social justice, and gives adults healthier choices other than opioids, alcohol and other far more dangerous substances.

The legalization debate is not being conducted in a vacuum. All year long there have been dozens of hearings across the state and according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent of our friends and neighbors support legalization efforts.

The good news for New Jersey, as we go through the legislative and regulatory process of legalizing cannabis, is we don’t have to guess on how best to do it. We have the experience of seven years of a growing medical cannabis program already in New Jersey as well as years of data and statistics from Colorado, Washington and other states that have already successfully gone through their legalization process.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need to make certain when we do this, that we do it in a responsible and sustainable manner which effectively addresses education and public safety issues.

The biggest concerns

Take, for example, some of our chief concerns regarding cannabis legalization: Teenage use, driving fatalities, and crime. As a father of four, a veteran, and someone who served my country and my community in professional capacities for nearly 30 years, I can assure you that your concerns are my concerns. So, let’s look at the facts:

  • Teenage use is at a 20-year low. With 32 states having legalized cannabis in some form, more cannabis is being sold now more than ever before. Yet, we are at a 20-year low when it comes to teenage use. In fact, Colorado teens were number one when it came to cannabis use. Several years after the state legalized it, they dropped to number seven. This downward trend is driven by education and regulations.

  • Driving fatality rates do not increase in states that legalized cannabis. A lot of studies are out there that discuss traffic accidents and legalization. There are significant challenges in qualifying these studies as each state categorizes accidents, their causes, and related data differently. So, there’s no consistency. To resolve the inconsistency, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health eliminated all factors in a traffic fatality (texting while driving, an animal jumping out, alcohol, cannabis, cough medicine, etc.) and just looked at whether there was a spike in traffic deaths in states that legalized cannabis and states that have not. The findings? No difference.

  • Crime actually goes down near cannabis dispensaries. Some people associate cannabis with drug dealing and crime. The theory is, if there is a dispensary, surely drug dealers and criminals will hang out. This dramatically outdated notion is easily dispelled with common sense and actual data. Dispensaries have a significant amount of security between cameras and personnel. Bad guys don’t hang around places with cameras and security personnel. In fact, if crime around dispensaries were an actual issue, we would know it because we have operating dispensaries already in New Jersey.

Revenue up, teenage use down in Colorado

But don’t just take my word for it, listen to Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, who opposed cannabis legalization when it was debated in Colorado and now has become an advocate because of the benefits.

“We took on the daunting challenge of becoming the first major city in America to manage legalized recreational marijuana and we are having success,” stated Mayor Hancock, citing job and revenue growth.

Colorado’s revenue is up and teenage use of cannabis is down. Not too shabby.

New Jersey will also see a spike in jobs and revenue, issues around social justice on cannabis finally being addressed, and a decrease in opioid overdoses. These are statistical truths.

Let’s be smart about moving forward. With proper regulations as well as education and enforcement, New Jersey will see the benefits other states have achieved: reduced opioid use and overdoses, less crime, less teenage use, more jobs and more revenue.

Cannabis is here and has been here for thousands of years. Stopping the failed war on cannabis and creating a responsibly regulated, job producing, black market-ending industry is something we should focus on, and soon. Right now, the only ones benefitting from cannabis prohibition are drug dealers and cartels. We can and must do better.

Scott Rudder is a former mayor and New Jersey State Assemblyman. He is the president, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and a partner at Burton Trent Public Affairs, LLC.

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