At Least for Now, Legalized Pot Likely to Remain a Pipedream in NJ

Andrew Kitchenman | January 27, 2014 | Health Care
Christie opposes idea, but increasing public support could tip balance in the long term

It took more than eight years — starting with a local proposal to legalize marijuana possession in Denver – for Colorado to become the first state to legalize the substance.

While it remains to be seen whether it will take that long for a similar proposal by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union) to take root in New Jersey, residents shouldn’t expect any real movement on the issue as long as Gov. Chris Christie is in office.

Specifics of Scutari’s proposal aren’t yet available, but he has outlined a plan that goes far beyond tinkering with the state’s medical marijuana law, or even a bill that would decriminalize marijuana.

Instead, Scutari wants to see the substance legalized statewide, much like the recent legalization in Colorado and a more modest change in Washington state.

Christie is a staunch opponent of easing restrictions on marijuana, making a change unlikely for the rest of his term. But there are signs that public opinion in the state has swung in favor of the concept, which may embolden New Jersey legislators who want to come out in support of Scutari’s plan.

While there hasn’t been a poll done in recent months, a poll taken in May found that 57 percent of New Jerseyans supported legalization, with 37 percent opposed and 6 percent undecided, according to pollster Daniel Gotoff. The poll was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 4 percent.

Gotoff noted support was also reflected in those who felt passionately about the issue, with 43 percent of voters strongly supportive of legalization and 25 percent strongly opposed.

“This is an issue that people have been thinking through,” Gotoff said. “It’s not a novel concept.”

Support crossed political lines, with Democrats favoring legalization by a margin of 59 percent to 35 percent, independents backing it 61 percent to 34 percent and Republicans supporting it 53 percent to 39 percent.

“Not too long ago, you could envision a scenario in which there was real polarization beneath these numbers,” said Gotoff, adding that there was “shockingly minimal difference across subgroups. He did note that the margin of error was larger for subgroups.

The May poll found that legalization support also crossed age groups, although those aged 18 to 29 were the biggest supporters, by a 72 percent to 24 percent margin, while those older than 65 were most tepid in their support, backing legalization 49 percent to 44 percent.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll in 2011 found that the percentage of state residents who felt that penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana should be eliminated had grown to 56 percent from 45 percent in 1972, the last time the issue had been polled.

Poll director David Redlawsk, a Rutgers political science professor, said it appeared that, until now, public support for marijuana legalization was outpacing proposals put forward by New Jersey elected officials.

Redlawsk drew a parallel with support for same-sex marriage, saying that Colorado and Washington could prove to be a “bellwether” states for legalized marijuana, much like Massachusetts was for legalized gay marriage.

Redlawsk noted that, for now, the proposal “will never get past the governor, and it won’t matter what public opinion is.”

He added that, in the case of legalized pot, New Jersey residents shouldn’t look for the issue to be resolved by the courts as it was for gay marriage.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to find a right to marijuana in the (New Jersey) constitution,” Redlawsk said.

Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the national advocacy organization Marijuana Policy Project, said it could take years for state-level support to lead to marijuana legalization. He noted that Denver voters made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana legal in 2005, and voted to make marijuana enforcement the lowest priority for law enforcement in 2007. The final push for statewide legalization began in mid-2011 for a referendum question that was passed in November 2012. Legalization went into effect on January 1 of this year.

Fox’s organization, which was the primary financial backer of the Colorado measure, is supporting similar efforts in Alaska and other states. He expects 10 to 15 states to have passed legalization laws through ballot measures by 2017. He added that while voters have been more supportive than politicians, elected officials are also taking heed of public opinion in states like Florida, where a campaign to support medical marijuana is under way.

Scutari cited several reasons for supporting legalization, saying that regulating and taxing the substance would bring in much-needed revenue and reduce the public safety threat from armed marijuana sellers.

He said the first three weeks of Colorado’s new law have shown promising results.

Colorado “has shown success and has not had the dire results that critics” had predicted, Scutari said.

He added that while law-enforcement officials haven’t formally backed his proposal, some have told him privately that they feel the state’s drug-enforcement laws are broken. He pointed out that marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions fall disproportionately on minority residents, adding that the effect of a marijuana arrest on a person’s record can give that person “second-class status” for the rest of his or her life.

Scutari, who has worked as a municipal prosecutor for 11 years, said alcohol use is more harmful than marijuana use, adding that he expected that prohibitions on driving while under the influence of marijuana would be enforced in similar way to drunk-driving laws.

He added that the state’s medical marijuana law isn’t working, noting that “if you’re sick and dying and in the hospital and told you have three months to live, it’s virtually impossible to get” the substance.

Christie has cited public safety concerns in announcing his total opposition to further expansion of medical marijuana access, asserting that the call for further expansion was part of a broader effort to move toward legalization.

However, Christie hasn’t taken a complete hard line on drug crime, expanding access to drug courts that offer treatment to nonviolent offenders and suggesting an alternate approach to law enforcement in his recent inaugural address.

“We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” Christie said in the speech. “We will make drug treatment available to as many of our nonviolent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable.”

Scutari acknowledged that it will take time to enact his bill.

“We’re not delusional about how simple the effort will be,” he said.