In the movie, “The Hunt for Red October,” a fictional national security advisor is considering a risky plan to assist a rogue Soviet sub commander who wants to defect to America, with his boat.
He turns to Alec Baldwin and offers a political insight for the ages: “Listen, I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops,” he says. “But it also means I keep my options open.”
If you want to understand the debate over legalizing weed in Trenton, that sums it up well. I don’t mean the part about stealing lollipops, though I can’t rule that out. It’s the part about keeping the options open, letting the other guy risk his neck first.
Only a handful of the 120 legislators have come out in favor of legalizing weed, even though polls show solid public support, and the new governor, Phil Murphy, won decisively in November after campaigning on it aggressively
So, what’s going on?
Legalizing weed is something new, and big, and controversial. And the bills are still taking shape. At this stage, it’s safer to let the other guy step out of the foxhole first and see if he survives.
“You’re not going to jump out and say you’re in favor of this when you don’t even know what the bill is, and you know you will have people come out against you,” says Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “But you’re going to see the momentum shift.”
When it does, it will gain momentum, as it becomes safer and safer for the scaredy-cats.
I talked to almost all the key players last week, concerned by reports that this effort could stall. And, yes, if the supporters don’t get moving soon, they could indeed blow this.
We could keep arresting people for smoking weed, which is ridiculous. We could keep convicting African-Americans at three times the rate of whites, which is offensive. And we could preserve a system that the criminals love because it ensures they will keep earning boatloads of cash from street sales.
But I am ready to predict it will go the other way, that New Jersey will follow Colorado and the eight other states where weed is treated like booze – legal for adults, and not for kids.
Why the optimism? Here’s a list.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, is now leaning strongly in support of legalization after visiting Colorado, according to three sources with direct knowledge of his thinking. That’s a big deal.
As Speaker, Coughlin can single-handedly stop this train. And while Sweeney and the governor are solidly on board, Coughlin has been a holdout.
He is taking no position now, he says, because he does not want to pressure his members — at least until Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, finishes his public hearings on the issue.
That, by the way, is unusual in Trenton. The big-shots in town, like Sweeney, tend to throw their political weight around like Sumo wrestlers. Coughlin prefers to build consensus through dialogue. Imagine that.
Another reason for optimism: Colorado is a secret weapon, because it shows that the fear-mongering is nonsense.
“Every time a legislator visits, they come back enlightened, thinking this is a good idea,” says Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the chief sponsor in the Senate.
An example: Critics cite statistics showing a huge number of “marijuana-related” car crashes in states with legal weed. But it turns out that claim is based on blood tests, which only show that a driver has smoked within the last three or four weeks. It says nothing about his or her state of sobriety.
Another: Emergency room visits spiked after legalization. But Danielsen, who is on the fence, talked to firefighters and ambulance crews in Colorado, who told him that problem has disappeared.
“In the first eight months or so, people didn’t know how to handle marijuana, and they took too much, too fast,” he says. “But that’s all gone now.”
Several legislators say they worry that legalizing weed would send a message to children that using drugs is okay, even as the opioid crisis continues to take its horrifying toll.
“The message is that this drug is okay, and that drug is not,” says Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex. “Kids don’t get that.”
It’s tough to measure that, of course. But we’ve been using criminal law to deter kids from smoking weed for a half century now. It has failed spectacularly. Maybe it’s time to try something new.
The truth is that the black market itself is the gateway to hard drugs. Because if you buy weed on the corner, dealers often have a menu for you to consider. Want cocaine? Opioids? LSD?
“That’s the relationship we don’t want to foster,” says Scott Rudder, a former assemblyman who runs the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and promotes the industry. “The regulated shops will not say, ‘Hey, you want to try this other drug?'”
Rudder says that behind closed doors he hears a lot more support than he does in public. “I walk in to a ‘no’ and leave with a ‘maybe.’ I walk in to a ‘maybe’ and I leave with a ‘yes.’ The tides have turned in a dramatic fashion because of the record in other states.”
This is far from a sure thing, and I confess that my track record on predictions is imperfect. Just ask President Hillary Clinton.
Danielsen might be the best barometer, because he’s undecided and he knows the material well. He’s not opposed in principle, but says the details count.
How will cops catch stoned drivers, with no breathalyzer? How can the state ensure those most damaged by the criminal prohibition — poor minorities — get a fair share of the business and benefits? How can we ensure that drug cartels don’t capture a share of the legal business?
“I’m not going to vote for something I’m uncomfortable with,” he says. “I knock on doors, and I have been for 20 years. I have to answer questions on those doorsteps.”
Scutari says he’ll open Senate hearings soon, though no date has been set. He seems amused by the worries of the fence-sitters. “Politicians are not a courageous bunch,” he says.
Ten years ago, when he first started talking about medical marijuana, a senior legislator warned him to steer clear.
“It’s 10 years later,” he says. “And I’m still here.”
Bless him for that. Because if they all listen to the voice of caution, and protect their careers, nothing big will ever get done.