Pubdate: Mon, 19 Jun 2017
Source: Herald News (West Paterson, NJ)
Copyright: 2017 North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Author: Dustin Racioppi


Looking beyond Gov. Chris Christie and seeing a more socially liberal
future, Democratic lawmakers opened their campaign to legalize
marijuana in New Jersey with a lengthy legislative hearing Monday.

Although no vote was planned on the bill that was introduced last
month, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing formally set in motion a
campaign to make New Jersey among the first states in the Northeast to
legalize marijuana. Voters in eight other states and Washington, D.C.,
have approved marijuana legalization, but New Jersey would be the
first to do so through legislation.

The hearing signaled the Democratic-led Legislature's confidence that
the next governor will be Phil Murphy, the party nominee, and he will
sign the legislation. Murphy said he supports marijuana

Christie, a Republican, has promised to block any legalization
efforts. He views marijuana as a gateway to more harmful and addictive
substances, and the effort to legalize it amid a heroin and opiate
abuse crisis tin-eared and illogical.

But over several hours on Monday, experts and supporters framed the
debate much differently. Unlike drugs like heroin, marijuana has not
been directly linked to overdoses and deaths. They argued that the
effects of marijuana are less harmful than those of alcohol and
tobacco, but the prosecution of marijuana possession has been a costly
endeavor with long-lasting consequences that far outweigh the crime.

"We've penalized our public, we've ruined countless lives and no one
has died from it," judiciary committee Chairman Sen. Nicholas Scutari,
who is leading the legalization effort, said. "Yet doctors prescribe
opioids like they're going out of style. Opioids you can get all day

Under the bill, S-3195, people 21 and older would be allowed to
possess and use small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. It
would decriminalize the possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana. The
bill would also create a Divisions of Marijuana Enforcement within the
Attorney General's office to regulate the sale and purchase of the

And it would be taxed -- five percent the first year, increasing to 25
percent the third year. A 2016 study by New Jersey Policy Perspective,
a left-leaning think-tank, and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform
estimated that sales tax revenue from marijuana could generate up to
$300 million annually. Supporters say that the money is not a prime
motivator, but New Jersey's budget is also constantly stressed and
political leaders frequently rely on gimmicks and one-shot sources of
revenue to fill fiscal gaps.

The state also spends about $127 million a year to enforce marijuana
possession laws, according to the bill. Jon-Henry Barr, a municipal
prosecutor and a Republican, said such spending goes against his
party's core principles.

"We Republicans are against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars
on government programs that do not work and are not necessary. The war
on marijuana is a government program that does not work and is not
necessary," Barr said.

He added that he has prosecuted marijuana possession cases "week in
and week out for 16 years" and come to learn that most of the
defendants "aren't criminals."

Other supports framed marijuana legalization as a civil rights issue.
Black New Jerseyans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested
for marijuana possession than white residents, according to the bill.

"These laws have been neither just nor fair," said Richard T. Edwards,
president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of the
Advancement of Colored People.

Much of the hearing favored legalization, but others remain
unconvinced. Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, cited a 2014 joint
study by Northwestern Medicine and Harvard Medical School that found
that recreational marijuana use caused "significant abnormalities" in
two brain regions important in emotion and motivation.

"You ought to look a little closer," Cardinale said. "This is a
harmful thing."

Any bill that does pass the Legislature and not signed by Christie
will need to be introduced and see the process restarted in January
once a new governor is sworn in along with a new Legislature. In
addition to the race for governor, all 120 seats in the Senate and
Assembly are on the ballot in November.
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MAP posted-by: Matt