Pubdate: Thu, 19 Feb 2015
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2015 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Jan Hefler


While Opposition Looks Strong, a Coalition Hopes the State Will Be 
Next to Allow Recreational Sales.

This is bigger than Gov. Christie, and even Gov. Christie says the 
war on drugs has failed. ... I think he would be open to discussion 
about it. Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference

A coalition of civil liberties and anti-discrimination groups has 
joined with prosecutors, police, medical professionals, and political 
activists to launch a campaign to make New Jersey the next state in 
the nation to legalize marijuana.

Under the name New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, the coalition 
includes the state chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP; Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition, and the president of the state 
Municipal Prosecutors Association, which last year voted in favor of 
legalization for adults.

"This is a hearts-and-minds campaign," Udi Ofer, executive director 
of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said after the 
kickoff Wednesday. "We need to overcome the fiction that many people 
have been told for many years about marijuana and need to help people 
understand the benefits of legalizing, taxing, and regulating it." He 
said the coalition would begin hosting lectures and workshops at 
various venues throughout the state to "win the public debate" over the issue.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. have all 
enacted laws in the last few years to allow recreational use of the 
drug, and other state legislatures are considering doing the same. 
New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) introduced a bill a year 
ago, but it has not yet been released for debate on the floor and a 
vote. Scutari, a prosecutor in Linden, said in an interview Wednesday 
that he had "good reason to expect" the bill to be aired in the 
spring and was hopeful Gov. Christie would be convinced to sign it 
despite threatening to veto it last year.

"I'm not in a huge hurry to get it to the governor's desk," Scutari 
said. "As a legislator I'm not here to make a point but to get things 
done. In the next 21/ 2 years I'm hoping for a groundswell of support 
so that it will pass."

Twenty-three states, including New Jersey, permit marijuana to be 
used for medical reasons. Pennsylvania is not among them, but 
Philadelphia passed a law recently that decriminalizes the possession 
of small quantities of the drug, effectively reducing the penalty to a fine.

Jon-Henry Barr, president of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors 
Association, said decriminalization was a "softer, kinder, gentler 
approach" to the use of marijuana but can still lead to arrests and 
convictions. "It's better than the status quo, but it's not the 
answer," he said.

Barr said the majority of marijuana arrests are for small quantities 
and that these don't make society safer as a whole and are a waste of 
taxpayers' money. "From everything I know as a prosecutor and have 
experienced as a volunteer EMT, marijuana is far less dangerous than 
hard liquor," said Barr, a prosecutor in Clark, Union County.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national organization that opposes 
legalization, says that if marijuana were legal, more minors would 
use the drug and this could lead to an increase in mental health and 
public health problems. The group favors more regulation to stop the 
use of marijuana.

The ACLU says the prohibition of marijuana does not work and has 
wasted taxpayers' money. New Jersey police arrest more than 21,000 
people a year for marijuana possession and spend an estimated $127 
million a year enforcing marijuana laws, the ACLU says.

Decriminalization laws allow the black market to control the sale of 
marijuana, while legalization and regulation would replace this 
illegal sale of marijuana, Ofer said. With legalization, adults could 
purchase marijuana from stores and use it in the privacy of their 
homes. Sales would not be made to minors, he said.

Legalization would also correct the injustice committed against 
African Americans by the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana 
laws, according to Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey 
State Conference.

"This failed system has devastated our community," he said. "African 
Americans are three times more likely to be arrested than our white 
counterparts, though usage levels are about the same." The arrests 
affect African Americans' ability to obtain jobs, student loans, and 
housing, among other issues, he said.

Smith said taxing and regulating marijuana had the potential to 
generate $100 million in revenue for the state. "Think what can be 
done with that money - it could be used for rebuilding our cities, 
for education, creating jobs," he said.

Though Christie has stated several times that he would veto any 
legalization bill that made it to his desk, Smith said the governor 
would not be able to stop the campaign.

"This is bigger than Gov. Christie, and even Gov. Christie says the 
war on drugs has failed. ... I think he would be open to discussion 
about it," Smith said.

A Gallup poll taken in October showed 51 percent of Americans favored 
legalization, down from 58 percent the previous year. Other polls 
conducted last year in New Jersey show the populace was evenly 
divided or slightly in favor of legalization.

When visiting Denver, Christie told reporters last year that he 
thinks "legalizing marijuana is the wrong thing to do from a societal 
perspective, from a governmental perspective." He said he worries 
that legalization could lead to more people "walking around high."

The coalition says it plans to educate the public on the benefits of 

Ofer said the coalition was put together over the last 10 months and 
had met with activists who played a role in legalizing pot in other states.

"We've been talking to individuals involved in those efforts to learn 
what works and what can be done better," he said. "... We want to 
bring to New Jersey the next generation of marijuana laws."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom