Years In Prison For Growing Weed? Still?

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Sen. Gerry Cardinale is an arch-conservative, a better fit for Alabama than New Jersey, a man who opposed marijuana legalization from the start.

But even Cardinale can see that it is plain crazy to throw someone in prison for years because they grow marijuana in their back yard – especially after New Jersey voters made it clear in a landslide vote that they want weed to be legal.

“It boggles the mind,” says Cardinale, R-Bergen. “If it’s a legal substance, what is the public interest in not allowing people to grow it, like carrots or beets?”

Right now, the governor and Legislature are caught in a stalemate over legislation to implement the mandate of voters after 67 percent favored legalization for adult recreational use in November’s vote. The sticking point is how to enforce rules barring minors from joining the party.

But Cardinale points to a second big problem with the bill on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk: It does nothing to change the draconian laws barring users from growing their own marijuana plants.

Cultivating a single plant remains a third-degree crime in New Jersey, punishable by three to five years in prison. Growing 10 plants is a first-degree crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, with one-third mandatory – the same penalty state law imposes for operating a meth lab.

The intention is to ensure that legal growers, those granted a state license, can establish themselves as successful businesses. Without the legal growers, the illegal market would continue to fill the need, derailing this entire exercise. A second concern is that home-growers could grow more than enough to satisfy their own need and sell the remainder on the illegal market.

Somehow, at least 18 states have survived allowing home-grown for either recreational or medical use, or both. They include Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Their legal markets have not collapsed as a result, and many experts say consumers are no more likely to grow their own marijuana than to brew their own beer, given the expertise required to do it right.

“You’re going to see the proliferation of craft cannabis economy here in New Jersey, that’s the future,” says Bill Caruso, of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “Just as we’ve seen with craft brews.”

Even if the Legislature and governor refuse to legalize home grow, do these long prison sentences make a scrap of sense? Do we really want to derail someone’s life over a few pot plants in the basement?

“That’s insane, and it’s not where the public is,” says Caruso, of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

The case for home-grow is especially strong among medical marijuana users. This is their medicine, and often sells for more than $400 an ounce, thanks to supply shortages. Insurers don’t cover it, and patients often have trouble finding the strain that addresses their illness most effectively. Forcing sick people to buy from this narrow and expensive market is inhumane.

“Physicians like me recognize a public health argument for allowing home cultivation,” Dr. David Nathan, a Princeton-based psychiatrist and founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, wrote in Cannabis Insider. “Those who need a particular strain should be able to grow it if it isn’t available in dispensaries.

The governor declined comment on Cardinale’s bill. But Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, both say they are open to allowing some home-grown, and will likely address the issue in a “clean-up” bill once agreement is reached on the existing bill.

“We want to get this up and running, and then look at that issue,” Sweeney says. “The first thing we’re going to do is clean up those penalties. They’re too severe.”

Cardinale is 86 years old and is facing a tough challenge this year from Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, 49, a fellow Republican who has been his running mate for the last decade. If Cardinale manages to survive, he’ll be 89 when his two-year term expires. “I don’t think I’ve slowed down too much,” he says.

Bergen Republican will make that call. But for now, here’s hoping that legislative leaders and the governor hear his sensible call to liberate home growers.