Opinion: Some Very Good Reasons for New Jersey to Go to Pot

R. William Potter | February 24, 2016 | Opinion
Legalizing marijuana would end the war on New Jersey residents -- particularly young men of color -- and generate much-needed tax revenue

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
On November 16, 2015, for the first time in New Jersey, a state Senate committee heard testimony on whether and if so how to legalize, regulate, and tax the sale and private adult use of marijuana. Although the testimony overwhelmingly favored the initiative, the Senate took no further action prior to the end of the legislative session on January 11, 2016.

Simply to hold a hearing was a significant advance in the effort to reach a peace agreement with one key part of the war on drugs — really a war on people, especially black and Hispanic youths who use marijuana in the same proportion as whites but are arrested and incarcerated at far higher rates.

A few days after that hearing, I was in Boulder, CO, for a family Thanksgiving reunion. Colorado is one of four states — along with Oregon, Washington, and Sarah Palin’s Alaska and the District of Columbia — to legalize the sale, purchase, and possession for adult private use of marijuana, which is still a criminal offense at the national level where it is listed as a Schedule 1 hard drug along with heroin.

As a longtime advocate for ending the absurd and cruel criminalization of this nation’s most popular illegal drug — in a recent poll 42 percent of adults admitted to having used marijuana, including at least one former President Bill (“I didn’t inhale”) Clinton — I had to check out one of the marijuana stores in Boulder to see how legalized sale operates in practice.

In a word, efficiently.

Shortly after stepping inside the cannabis store, discreetly located on the edge of a shopping mall parking lot, a smiling sales clerk directed me to a sign-in sheet, where I had to show identification. Upon seeing that I was from out of state, I was told exactly how much I could purchase and warned that I could not cross state lines with any of it.

On hearing this I informed the clerk that I did not want to buy any; I only wanted to see how pot was marketed and sold because I might write an article on the Colorado experience for NJ Spotlight. Ultimately, I did buy a two-day supply of marijuana patches to test the advertised medicinal benefits of applying the “pot patches” to my aching back. (I don’t think it worked.)

Next, I was told to have a seat on one of the comfortable couches that would have been at home in someone’s spacious living room, to await being called into a locked inner room where the marijuana was on display and sold. Joining me in the waiting area was an eclectic mix of college-age people and middle-aged gray hairs, men and women.

When my name was called another cheerful person escorted me into the inner chamber where a dozen or so folks were engaged in conversation, examining through locked-glass counters a variety of marijuana specialties, strengths, and tastes. I told the surprised salesclerk I was not there to buy but to observe for an article. But when I disclosed my back problem, she suggested a “pot patch” to treat it. After a few minutes, I paid a nominal fee and left.

The experience left me wondering — what is stopping New Jersey from following the example of our Western states? For starters, there’s Gov. Chris Christie. He has repeatedly said he would veto any pot legalization law that reaches his desk. But is it possible he will change his position now that he is no longer running for president? Here’s hoping, however unlikely.

Despite the governor’s adamant opposition, a Republican from Morris County, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, and a Democrat from Mercer County, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, joined in 2014 to cosponsor Bill 2842 to place before voters the “public question” of whether to legalize adult possession of up to 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of pot. The bill did not come up for a floor vote and has to start over again in the current legislative session. But at least it was introduced — with bipartisan support no less.

The public benefits of legalizing and taxing modest quantities of cannabis can no longer be seriously disputed. Topping the list is an end to the war on pot smokers that is leading to the arrest and incarceration of 22,000 per year in New Jersey, mostly young men of color. Nationally, some 750,000 are arrested each year for simple possession, again mostly African-American and Latino males.

Not only is legalization a matter of simple justice — pot smokers go to jail, booze drinkers go to a liquor store — but also it would save billions of dollars a year wasted on the arrest, prosecution and jailing of harmless pot users. Small wonder that 59 percent of New Jerseyans expressed support for legalization in a recent poll.

Besides the savings in human lives and wasted tax dollars, the state could reap a windfall by taxing pot sales. During the first two months of legalization, Colorado netted $6.17million in sales taxes, projected to exceed $36 million in the first year. That’s enough to plug many a hole in the chronically short state budget, and that’s not counting an infusion into local property-tax coffers, especially in inner cities where we could expect to see “cannabis shops” reopening many a boarded-up storefront.

With Colorado leading the way, New Jersey should follow.