NJ Marijuana Legalization: Weed Image Problem Decades In The Making

Photo Credit: Henry Romero

Ronald Sage looked outside of his Freehold office one November day in 1975 to see three members from the Global Gospel Outreach’s Ocean Grove chapter holding signs that warned against the devil’s weed.

Sage, a lawyer, had filed a lawsuit challenging state marijuana laws. He walked outside to discuss the issue with the group, including 91-year-old Elizabeth Jaqui. But they weren’t going to budge.

“It was such a polarizing issue back then,” Sage said. “Young people on one side and law enforcement and parents on the other side of the room taking extremely divergent views. It wasn’t just that they disagreed. Both sides thought the other side was essentially evil.”

Forty-two years later, New Jersey’s new governor plans to legalize recreational marijuana, a step that supporters say will improve the justice system, bring pain relief and raise tax revenue.

But the battle in front of Sage’s office continues. Both Monmouth and Ocean County freeholders recently said they don’t want it. Multiple Shore towns are looking to ban its sale. It’s a sign that the industry faces an uphill climb to make mainstream what long has been a symbol of the counterculture – and worse.

Scroll to the top of this story to see a video on the marijuana industry’s efforts to change its image.

“It’s the stigma,” said Stormy Simon, the former president of Overstock.com, who lives in Erda, Utah, and is helping the cannabis industry. “It’s an educational process. We have to unwind what our parents grew up with, which was ‘Reefer Madness.'”

Opinions have begun to shift. New Jersey is one of 30 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use. Eight states have legalized recreational marijuana. The Garden State could be the ninth; Gov. Phil Murphy has said that he wants to create a process to legalize recreational cannabis.

Advocates have more public support. A Gallup poll last October found 64 percent of Americans support legalized marijuana, compared with about 36 percent a decade earlier.

However, it isn’t a slam dunk. In New Jersey, only 42 percent support complete legalization, while another 26 percent want to decriminalize it by making the penalty for its possession the equivalent of a parking ticket, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll.

The opposition is staunch. Monmouth and Ocean counties’ board of freeholders passed resolutions opposing the legalization of recreational weed. The resolutions weren’t binding.

Among their concerns: They said it could be a gateway for users to become addicted to more harmful drugs; it could hurt the productivity of the work force; and it could bring an undesirable element to the Shore, whose tourism industry has been trying to foster a family-friendly image since Superstorm Sandy.

Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry seemed to equate the possession of marijuana to car theft and murder. Ocean County Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little said marijuana was more addictive than cocaine – a claim he later recanted, saying that was inaccurate.

“I don’t think we’re taking and doing our due diligence on all the potential negative outcomes that can come out of it,” Monmouth County Freeholder Director Tom Arnone said in an interview.

Lasting imprint of ‘Reefer Madness’

The drug has long been an outcast. Cannabis is a plant that contains THC, which can induce euphoria, heighten your senses, impair short-term memory, increase appetite and sexual desire, cause drowsiness and enhance introspection, said Barney Warf, a geography professor at the University of Kansas.

The drug was associated with immigrants from Mexico, who brought it to the U.S. when they fled war in the early 1900s. It later was common among African Americans in jazz clubs. And it caused a backlash. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began a steady campaign against the drug, Warf said, to help validate the agency.

Anslinger had help from popular culture. In 1936, the movie “Reefer Madness” was introduced, warning its audience of, “a new and deadly menace, lurking behind closed doors: Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.”

The drug would lead to debauchery, violence, murder and suicide, the movie said, showing a young women, loopy and crashing through a window toward her grisly death.

Newspapers got into the mix, too. “For the marijuana (cigarette) is said to stimulate its smokers to mental conditions likely to result in crimes of violence,” a Nov. 7,1934, story in the Asbury Park Evening Press noted.

In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, that essentially made possession of pot illegal.

Despite prevalent underground use, Warf said, there have been no deaths attributed to marijuana overdose or excessive cases of lung cancer. It prompted him to conclude that America’s battle with marijuana has more to do with fear of outsiders than it does with health.

“None of it was based on scientific evidence,” Warf said. “It was based on racism.”

Madison Avenue has its work cut out

White Americans used marijuana, too, but that did little to appease the political opposition. The drug became associated with Beatniks and hippies and Vietnam protesters, all of whom were taking on an establishment that valued industriousness.

In Washington, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her anti-drug initiative, “Just Say No,” in the 1980s. President Bill Clinton in the 1990s searched for a political middle-ground, admitting he smoked marijuana, but didn’t inhale.

Meantime, Hollywood brought the stoner culture to middle America, forcing parents to ask themselves if they wanted their children to wind up like Cheech and Chong, who in one scene are so high that they can’t tell if they were driving or parked. Or Jeff Spicoli at “Fast Times Ridgemont High,” who stumbles out of his smoke-filled VW van to class, where he orders pizza, making it difficult to imagine a bright future for him. Or Jersey Bayshore legends Jay & Silent Bob, who loiter outside of a convenience store as the world spins by.

“You know,” Jay says. “Sometimes I wish I did a little more with my life instead of hanging out in front of places selling weed and s***. Like maybe being an animal doctor.”

Against that backdrop, the cannabis industry is trying to chip away at the image of weed. It has been aided by the giant millennial generation that appears to be more tolerant. A Pew Research Center poll in 2016 found 71 percent of them supported the legalization of marijuana.

Its strategy includes a public relations campaign that can make it seem like cannabis is no different than craft beer or coffee. An Asbury Park Press reporter last week received a press release from THC Design, a cultivator in California, about the top cannabis strains for heartbreak on Valentine’s Day.

Among them was Blueberry Dome, a “strain with high levels of THC to provide intense relief with amazing flavors, mixing fresh nutty mint with ripe blueberries for a confusingly delicious taste that will dance across your tongue.”

Compare that with River City coffee offered at Booskerdoo: “This medium roast is a hearty brew with notes of dark chocolate and toasted marshmallow,” it said. “This coffee’s buttery body and strong kick mirror qualities of a dark roast, but without a smoky aftertaste.”

CannaContent, a digital marketing agency with an office in New Brunswick, started a year ago to help the industry get a foothold. It refers to the drug as cannabis instead of marijuana or its numerous other nicknames. It shies away from using a pot leaf logo, so controversial that it has been blurred out of music videos. And it touts the sleek design of dispensaries that can look no different than Apple stores.

“I think part of it is a natural process,” said Adam Uzialko, 25, and the director of content development for CanaContent. “I think that process is already underway. I think the social landscape changes before the legal landscape. And of course the economic benefits don’t hurt to push lawmakers in the right direction.”

Left unanswered is how much of marijuana’s image is deserved. Even advocates urge consumers not to drive or work while they are high, or leave an edible form of marijuana in reach of children.

But the issue that got Ronald Sage’s attention in the 1970s hasn’t been resolved. He was concerned that a marijuana arrest could destroy someone’s life with a penalty that was more severe than the crime.

By 2010, marijuana arrests accounted for more than half of all drug arrests nationwide. And African Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than whites, even though they used the drug at a similar rate, according to the ACLU.

Sage has law offices in Freehold and Manasquan, and he no longer is involved in the advocacy campaign. But he remembered the run-in with the Global Gospel Outreach picketers in 1975 and the emotions it stirred.

“I never felt back then that I’d ever see it legalized in my lifetime,” Sage said.

The group eventually left his office, according to an account in the Asbury Park Press, and headed for a protest at their next stop: the Sportsman Inn, a go-go bar in Howell.