Although a topic in Trenton for three years, the campaign to legalize marijuana in New Jersey officially begins Monday when a Senate committee will discuss how the potentially billion-dollar industry should be regulated.

So what will it take for you to be able to legally buy recreational pot in New Jersey?

Gov. Chris Christie is vehemently opposed to legalizing marijuana and he has six months left on his final term. And the election for governor will matter for supporters of legalizing pot: Democratic candidate Phil Murphy supports legalization but Republican candidate Kim Guadagno does not.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the bill's sponsor, said he wants to begin the discussion now to build support among his colleagues in the legislature and across the state.

“Now is the time to begin shaping New Jersey’s recreational marijuana program," Scutari said. "We will have a new governor next year and we should be prepared to move forward with a program that ends the prohibition on marijuana and that treats our residents fairly and humanely."

Here's what you need to know about the road to legal pot in New Jersey.

Here's what the legal pot bill would do

Scutari's bill, (S3195) based on visits to Colorado's thriving recreational program would:

•Decriminalize marijuana possession of up to 50 grams "immediately" and allow people who have been arrested for pot possession to expunge their records;

•Establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement in the state Attorney General's Office which would create the rules used to govern the legal market of growers and sellers;

•Allow people to possess up to one ounce of dried marijuana, 16 ounces of edible products infused with cannabis, 72 ounces in liquid form and seven grams of marijuana "concentrate;

•Impose a sales tax on recreational sales beginning at 7 percent in the first year, climbing to 10 percent in the second year and jumping five percent more each year until it reaches 25 percent. Taxes on medical marijuana would be abolished.

•Give the five existing medical marijuana dispensary nonprofit groups first crack at selling recreational pot.

Who is for legalizing pot

For now, the proponents of legal pot are the most vocal and active. Several groups have been formed uniting entrepreneurs and civil rights leaders to support the cause in the remaining days of the Christie administration.

They include New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, which funded a report last year showing how much the state could reap in sales tax revenue by legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

“We know that legalizing marijuana will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, the creation of thousands of jobs and a substantial increase in economic activity. It will also mean savings for law enforcement, safer streets, and importantly, a fairer way of treating our residents,” Scutari said. “The benefits are clear, but as part of our work towards legalization, we want to have a robust dialogue...about creating a marijuana program that is best suited for our state."

Who is against it

The true opponents to legalization have not yet revealed themselves, but Scott Rudder, board chairman for the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said he expects the drug and alcohol addiction treatment and the pharmaceutical industries to push for the bill's defeat after the governor's election is over.

"The pharmaceutical industry has fought legal and medicinal marijuana in every state, so has the alcohol and drug rehab centers. All of these are multi-billion-dollar industries," Rudder said.

"It's our job to (explain) the science behind the plan and to make them recognize this is an industry like any other. It is safe and effective in solving the medical issues people need it to – PTSD, (the effects of) chemotherapy," said Rudder, a former Republican state Assemblyman.

What the public says

Scutari's bill arrived May 18 amid a consensus that marijuana is destined to become a legal product like alcohol.

A Rutgers University-Eagleton Institute poll in June 2015 said 58 percent of New Jerseyans favor the legalization of marijuana.

And in the fall, a Gallup Poll found 60 percent of Americans favored making recreational pot legal.

Voters in eight states and Washington, D.C., have approved recreational marijuana, while 29 states and Washington D.C. have approved medical marijuana programs.

Should you be able to grow your own?

Legal marijuana's biggest advocates, including the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey and the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, are not fully supportive of the bill and are hoping changes are made.

These supporters are angry Scutari's bill does not allow people to grow their own cannabis.

In two separate analyses — one undertaken by The Star-Ledger, the other by the Department of Health — New Jersey's medicinal marijuana is the most expensive in the nation.

Scutari said one lesson he took away from his two trips to Colorado was that the home market is very difficult to regulate and control. Law enforcement has a hard time keeping track of home growers who are producing more than the law allows and selling their crop on the black market.

"I'm not saying I would be against something in the future," Scutari said. "I understand the frustration for people who say this is a plant and they should be able to grow it. But we don’t want these additional policing concerns.

"It creates an entire whole set of issues I don’t want to see us tackle when we are creating a new industry," he added.

Addressing racial disparity in enforcing pot laws

Advocates for legalized marijuana are also frustrated the bill does not address the unfairness of the criminal enforcement of marijuana laws.

Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates but blacks are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for doing so. A study released by the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey published Thursday, determined black residents were three times more likely than their white counterparts. The ACLU estimated New Jersey police agencies spend about $143 million per year to enforce the state's marijuana laws, and nine out of 10 arrests targeted marijuana users rather than dealers.

Clergy and community leaders want to see some of the state revenue dedicated to communities disproportionately affected by what they call "marijuana prohibition." They also want to make sure minorities have a fair shot at joining the industry.

“It is imperative that any legislation to legalize marijuana include policies that encourage full participation in the industry by communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and invests some of the revenue generated by legalization back into those communities,” Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, said in a statement.

How much tax revenue would it generate?

A study by New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform said the measure would generate at least $300 million in new tax revenue for the state.

Last year, Colorado reaped $200 million in tax revenue.

The state of Washington, which slaps an hefty 37 percent sales tax on cannabis purchases, collected $350 million over three years, according to a report in November by marijuana.com.

States with legal weed are projected to net $655 million in state taxes this year, according to a report by Forbes.

Voters have approved recreational marijuana in Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, Washington D.C., Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.

Getting support with a Colorado road trip

Scutari has succeeded in getting crucial support from the leaders in both the Senate and Assembly — a must in order for the bill to be scheduled for hearings in committees and floor votes in both houses.

Scutari did so in part by taking lawmakers on a tour of recreational marijuana shops in Colorado and meeting with law enforcement officials and government regulators in October. They learned recreational marijuana has created nearly 29,000 jobs, revitalized the economy of some struggling blue-collar towns and reduced the number of drug possession arrests by about 80 percent.

"I was on board before we went, but I am absolutely sold that this industry can be regulated. It's safe, it's well managed. Colorado has done an amazing job," Sweeney said during a press conference recounting the trip. "We are going to have a new governor in January 2018. As soon as the governor gets situated we are all here and we intend to move quickly on it."

What about Trump?

Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election and picking former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General could pose a problem for any state that has or intends to legalize cannabis.

When he was in the Senate, Sessions made numerous remarks revealing his antipathy to marijuana. When he was U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot," a statement he later explained he made in jest. Last year, Sessions opined: "Good people don't smoke marijuana." He also said: "We need grownups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it's in fact a very real danger."

Then last week, a memo Sessions wrote as attorney general went public in which he asks Congress not to renew an Obama-era policy that prevents federal law enforcement officials from targeting medical marijuana facilities.

Scutari has said he will proceed with promoting the legislation regardless of what happens in Washington.



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