Will marijuana legalization bandwagon be slowed by decriminalization effort?

There was a decided point of view at Wednesday’s hearing on marijuana legalization hosted by the Legislative Black Caucus. It’s no secret that the caucus’ chair, Sen. Ron Rice, favors a decriminalization bill and has promised to get a Senate vote on it. But the hearing, which was heavy on anti-legalization rhetoric, had some in the audience butting heads.

Many on the carefully-curated speakers list shared oft-disputed statistics on the dangers of marijuana itself, and the perils of legalization.

“We must ask ourselves are we are prepared to handle an influx of additional homeless people attracted to marijuana sales in Newark, Paterson, Jersey City or Trenton,” said former Toms River prosecutor Rory Wells. “Does Atlantic City and Camden have the resources to provide for dozens, if not hundreds, of new homeless migrants living on their streets?”

“I do sit on the board of St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark. We had 29 incidents of young folks who, literally, were out of their mind coming through the emergency room, in two days,” testified Rev. Jethro James, of the North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen. “The reality is that our best and our brightest brains will be fried by the time they get to a chance to be employed.”

Kristina Ziobro, of Springfield, testified that her son, Michael, died after smoking highly-potent marijuana in April of last year, although the Union County medical examiner did not list it as a cause of his death.

“I am compelled to raise awareness of the considerable risks and implications of smoking marijuana because I don’t believe the public is aware of its dangers,” she told the panel. “I feel in my heart of hearts if Michael knew the full implications of smoking marijuana with high levels of THC he would be alive today.”

As passionate as some of the testimony was, it left the lone pro-legalization witness, Virgil Grant, who’s run a medical marijuana dispensary in California for two decades, shaking his head.

“’I kind of felt like I was in a reefer madness zone sitting back there a minute ago with all of the untruths that I heard,” he said. “You guys need to educate yourselves first on this platform before any decisions are made.”

Grant steered the conversation toward minority involvement in what would be a major industry in New Jersey, generating hundreds of millions in taxes and, theoretically, thousands of jobs, which he says advocates are trying to make sure benefit people of color.

“Now we are trying to make sure that it’s not just all white ownership,” he said. “But that there is ownership of people of color within this billion dollar industry.”

“Legalization alone does not solve the social justice problem,” said the policy counsel for ACLU of New Jersey, Dianna Houenou. “We need to make sure that we are providing real opportunities for people of color and people from low-income communities.”

That issue is sure to be explored as this series of hearings continues next month. The senator says part of the purpose of these hearings is to slow the march toward legalization until residents can get more information. But critics say that these hearings suffer from a preponderance of misinformation.

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