Colorado Visit Reignites Lawmaker’s Commitment to Recreational Pot in NJ

Sen. Scutari cites soaring tax revenues and redeployment of police among benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana in Garden State

recreational pot
Just back from a fact-finding trip to Colorado, one of the states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, New Jersey Sen. Nick Scutari said he saw firsthand how that state has benefitted by ending its prohibition.

Tax revenues have soared, law enforcement has been redeployed to other priorities, and veteran suicide rates have dropped. But Scutari said he also saw ways Colorado’s legalization law wasn’t working perfectly, including an unclear “homegrown” provision that has made it difficult for police to closely track black-market sales.

With that new information in hand, Scutari (D-Union) said he will take the next several weeks to retool a legalization bill that he first introduced two years ago, all with the hopes of eventually adding New Jersey to the growing list of states that allow recreational marijuana use.

Advocates for marijuana reform yesterday praised the news of a renewed effort to legalize recreational use in New Jersey. They pointed to a recent report that found the state could generate an estimated $305 million in annual sales-tax revenue from regulated marijuana sales. Such a change could also address criminal-justice policies that now result in black residents being arrested far more often than whites, even though their use of marijuana is roughly the same.

Advocates also acknowledge there’s still work to do, including convincing lawmakers from both parties that moving beyond New Jersey’s current medicinal-marijuana law is a good idea. Then there’s Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who has made it clear on numerous occasions that he opposes any recreational drug use. The Republican Christie could remain in office until his second term ends in early 2018.

“We know that legalization isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a process,” Scutari said Tuesday during a news conference in the State House.

“We’re going to move the ball down the field,” he went on to tell reporters.

Colorado is one of four states that currently permit recreational marijuana. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington are also on the list, along with Washington, D.C. But several other states are moving in that direction, including California, where a ballot question seeking to legalize recreational use will likely go before voters in the fall.

New Jersey right now only allows marijuana to be used for limited medicinal purposes under a program authorized in early 2010 by Gov. Jon Corzine. While some states have fairly liberal medicinal-marijuana regulations, New Jersey’s program is tightly controlled, with some critics charging that Christie has intentionally held the program back from reaching its full potential.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has termed marijuana a “gateway drug” to more dangerous narcotics like opiates, and he threatened as a presidential candidate last year to crack down on states like Colorado that have been bucking federal law to allow recreational use.

But Scutari said during his four-day trip to Colorado that he found a well-regulated and well-run recreational marijuana program. He met with law-enforcement, health officials and state government representatives during the trip, and he also visited storefront dispensaries that are serving both medicinal and recreational customers. He said he did not sample any products, but he held up some empty containers as examples during the news conference yesterday.

Scutari, a municipal prosecutor, said he also learned that adolescent marijuana use has dropped significantly since the drug was legalized for adults age 21 and older in Colorado two years ago. Police officers no longer spend time on marijuana arrests, and fewer veterans are taking their own lives.

“We got a firsthand look at a program that seems to be working very well,” he said.

He also heard from law enforcement about challenges they face, including keeping tabs on marijuana that’s allowed to be grown at home under Colorado’s law, which was enacted as a constitutional amendment. Making sure the proper dosage for edible products is clearly labeled on packaging is another lesson learned from Colorado.

Scutari said his goal now is to create a “model program” through legislation in New Jersey. He’s planning to draft a new bill over the summer and wants to hold a legislative hearing on the issue by the fall.

And for a state like New Jersey, which just had to close a $1 billion revenue shortfall, the potential benefits from the tax revenue are tough to ignore, he said. In Colorado, marijuana sales have produced $150 million in new revenue for the state based on a 27.9 percent tax rate.

“Who doesn’t want a couple hundred million dollars in the state’s coffers,” Scutari asked.

Last month, a report released by New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform and the liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated New Jersey could eventually generate $305 million in annual revenue by legalizing recreational marijuana and phasing in a 25 percent sales tax on products. The analysis was based in part on estimates that roughly 366,000 New Jersey residents over age 21 currently use marijuana on a monthly basis, consuming a combined 2.5 million ounces each year.

But Bill Caruso, a founding steering committee member of NJUFMR said the state could create more than $1 billion in revenue if it became a leader in a budding white-coat research and development industry tied to medicinal marijuana.

“We have the ability to create a new economy here,” Caruso said.

He also pointed to New Jersey’s farming roots as another way the state could benefit from legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana.

“We’ve got a pretty good agricultural background here in the Garden State,” he said.

Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which is also a steering committee member of NJUFMR, coauthored the report released last month.

The report also made the case that some of the new revenue from legalizing recreational marijuana could be earmarked to fund drug-treatment programs and boost communities where drug laws have had a disproportionate impact.

“It really is a rare and unique alignment of social justice and economic opportunity,” Rosmarin said.

Even with Christie in office for another 18 months, he said that’s no reason for Scutari and other lawmakers to hold back a worthy reform effort.

“Nobody should be waiting around for Gov. Christie to see the light here,” he said.