Legal Weed In NJ: Gopal Says Monmouth Freeholders Wrong On Marijuana

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Monmouth County freeholders are wrong in their outright opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana, the county’s newest state lawmaker said.

“My message to the freeholders would be to slow down. There’s no rush,” said state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who represents the 11th district. “Let’s try to work together and see what works and what doesn’t for us.”

The freeholders last week approved a resolution saying the all-Republican board is against legalizing recreational weed. The resolution wouldn’t stop towns from allowing weed sales, but the freeholders have said they hope towns will follow the county’s lead.

The freeholders came out early with their opposition in part because of a fear Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, would push to legalize marijuana within his first 100 days in office.

Yet, legal weed is not a purely Democrat vs. Republican issue. State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who recently took the senate seat in the 13th district, said he is still researching issues surrounding marijuana.

“I’m certainly not a firm no,” he said. “I’ll reach my own conclusion taking into account input from the freeholders where it’s credible and other credible sources.”

Freeholder Director Tom Arnone said he’s looking at legalization solely from the health and safety aspect.

“I respect Vin’s opinion, but I differ,” he said. “How do I tell kids not to smoke cigarettes, but then say they can smoke marijuana?”

Arnone said there’s a disconnect between state lawmakers attempting to legalize marijuana while also attempting to ban menthol in cigarettes for safety reasons.

He also said there are not enough protections in the law to deal to address legal concerns like the fact there’s no credible way yet for police to determine if drivers are under the influence of marijuana.

Gopal said, “That’s a concern, but that’s not a reason to shut down an idea altogether.”

Instead, he said New Jersey lawmakers need to take their time to consider both the positive and negative outcomes in states that have legalized marijuana when crafting their laws.

O’Scanlon said he’s already started some of that research, including making a trip to Colorado to talk with supporters and opponents there.

Gopal said criminal justice, not revenue, is the key concern in the effort to legalize marijuana. New Jersey spends millions of dollars each year to enforce marijuana laws, which are largely used to target nonviolent offenders, he said.

Marijuana users made up 95 percent of the marijuana arrests in Monmouth County in 2013, Gopal said, citing an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey study on legalization. That study also ranked Gopal’s 11th district as having the third-highest rate of marijuana arrests in the state.

“It’s crazy and ridiculous. I think we need to focus our criminal justice dollars on the people who are trying to hurt people,” he said.

Gopal also disputed the charge in the freeholders’ resolution that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” He said alcohol and nicotine, both of which are legal, are more dangerous to people’s health than marijuana.

“There are a lot of hypocrisies in this conversation,” he said. “Government has the responsibility to have an honest conversation and not just close the door without doing our homework.”