NJ: No Consensus On Cannabis Emerges From Marathon Assembly Hearing

Photo Credit: PEDRO PARDO

Amid the clamor of voices pro and con, what comes clear is the fact that there are many valid arguments and no easy answers

A five-hour state Assembly hearing with dozens of experts for and against the legalization of marijuana resulted in little consensus Monday, with advocates pointing to social justice, state revenues for school construction and other projects, and efforts to mitigate drug cartels and black-market sales, while those against say rosy predictions have not panned out elsewhere.

The state legislature is deep in an information-gathering phase as it begins to consider bills that would legalize cannabis in some form in the state – one of Governor Phil Murphy’s oft-repeated campaign promises and an estimated multibillion dollar industry in New Jersey.

The Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee heard testimony from 27 advocates and experts from the law enforcement, business, medical, and civil rights fields.

It’s Time to Legalize

The argument for legalization is centered on the idea that marijuana prohibition laws have not only failed to stop people from using marijuana and created a black market, but also that states are paying an inordinate amount of money to incarcerate individuals for possession of even a small amount of pot. Indeed, according to recent estimates, New Jersey shells out approximately $127 million per year on marijuana possession enforcement costs; money that advocates say could be better spent on other needs. Supporters of recreational legalization say the state government should regulate and tax cannabis, potentially creating a multibillion dollar industry and provide countless employment opportunities around the state (not to mention the revenue from tourists looking to inhale in the state.)

Those in favor of legalization include the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the NAACP, and advocacy groups like the New Jersey Cannabusiness association, Drug Policy Alliance, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR). Representatives from each presented arguments urging legislators to consider how marijuana laws have played a major role in the high incarceration rates of black and Hispanic New Jerseyans. They also urged the committee to include language to expunge marijuana arrest records in any legalization bill put up for a vote.

“We need automatic expungement of marijuana arrests, equitable access to the legal marijuana market, home cultivation for personal use, and reinvestment in New Jersey’s communities,” Amol Sinha ACLU-NJ executive director said. “Over the past decade, we’ve spent over a billion dollars to arrest people for something many agree should be legal.”

Bill Caruso, a lobbyist with the NJUMR and a lawyer, said there’s also an opportunity for New Jersey to become a leader in marijuana research and science – potentially serving as a source for data for the rest of the country as other states consider legalization and medical marijuana programs.

“We can do something bigger than become a cannabis retail center” Caruso said “we have the ability to create manufacturing centers, populate our labs, and bring back the pharma economy.”

Moving Too Fast?

Opponents, meanwhile, argued that legalizing recreational use is an invitation for big businesses to come into the state and heavily market the product to residents who might not otherwise use it. This, they say, will make pot too accessible and broaden the opportunity for drug abuse, misuse, and crime.

Several groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and its state affiliate NJ-RAMP, as well as some representatives from states like Colorado and Nevada that have already legalized marijuana warned of the dangers inherent in moving forward with too much optimism.

Todd Raybuck, a Nevada police captain, said he’s seen a strengthened cannabis black market in Las Vegas, and the city has not received the funding injection that they had anticipated.

“The lure of increased tax revenue and claims of a regulated system that will eliminate the criminal element and repair historical harms to the minority community is intoxicating,” Raybuck said. “We are learning in Nevada, the financial gains from the marijuana industry do not adequately support the resources needed to control the effects of marijuana legalization.”

Opponents also argue that legalization wouldn’t solve the incarceration disproportionality issues. Kevin Sabet, SAM founder and former drug policy advisor to President Barack Obama, pointed to statistics that show even in states like Colorado and Washington, African-American youths are still being arrested at high rates.

The Black Legislative Caucus led by Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) has been holding its own hearings at churches and in urban communities statewide advocating for decriminalization as a social justice solution rather than outright legalization.

Still Wary

Others in the state say there are crucial elements to consider before passing any kind of legislation. Cranbury Mayor David Cook testified that his town has had little to no issue with Breakwater, the medical marijuana dispensary in the community, but said municipalities should have the option to close themselves off to dispensaries and recreational pot shops if they so choose.

Aaron Epstein, manager of the Garden State Dispensary for Medicinal Cannabis, said expanding marijuana dispensaries too quickly or flooding the market with recreational shops could destroy the carefully developed medical marijuana system in the state. Patients, he said, could fall victim to cheaper or less carefully regulated strains for sale in pot shops rather than prescribed doses.

“I do not want to see more marijuana dispensaries than Taco Bells in the state,” Epstein said noting that New Jersey currently has 99 Taco Bell facilities in operation. He said he supports anywhere from 80 to 100 dispensary licenses but “If you go higher than that you will decimate the medical industry.”

Leo Bridgewater, an army veteran who uses medical marijuana and is president of the New Jersey Chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana said the time has come for legislators to make their decision.

“You’ve heard enough,” Bridgewater said, “You heard it all. What I will tell you is that as a state, we are in a unique position to bring order to chaos.”

Bridgewater said that while states like Colorado and Washington led the charge in legalizing recreational use, New Jersey has the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and create legislation that builds in the concerns of all parties. He added that the Garden State is situated to commission marijuana studies and contribute to the national body of cannabis data.

Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset), chair of the committee, noted “we started as a blank slate, and the committee received a great education, but it’s just the beginning” as he announced three additional hearings to be held across the state over the next few months: One on April 21 at Rowan University, another on May 12 at Bergen County Community College, and a third at location in central Jersey to be determined.

The Assembly’s hearing comes at a time when marijuana-related panel events hosted by competing interest groups are taking place statewide, each offering a different focus – from the impact on minority communities to the business opportunities for the state.

Several lawmakers have said they are working on legalization legislation. Bills have been introduced this session by Nick Scutari (D-Union) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) to legalize small amounts of cannabis, but they have all yet to come up for a vote.