Pubdate: Fri, 09 Mar 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Jan Hefler, Staff Writer


When New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced a 62-page bill
and primer on how to legalize marijuana almost one year ago, he
chuckled when asked if it had a prayer of passing.

The legal sale of recreational marijuana had not yet begun in any
other East Coast state, and yes, Chris Christie, the Republican
governor at the time, had threatened a veto.

The bill, Scutari insisted, would give lawmakers time to digest and
debate the issue so that a palatable package would be "ready for the
next governor."

Gov. Murphy, a Democrat who promised on the campaign trail that he
would give legal pot the green light, is now in his third month in
office. But no legalization bill has landed on his desk. None has even
made it to the floor for debate, despite a Democratic majority in the
Legislature and pledges from party leaders that this would be a priority.

"Many lawmakers are still undecided," Scutari, a Democrat from Union
County, said last week. In January, he predicted legalization would be
approved by the spring, possibly the summer at the latest. But now he
says it might take a little longer.

"Politicians are not known as a courageous bunch, and it's a topic
people want to get comfortable with. … After 90 years of
indoctrination that this is a bad substance, we have to turn people
around, educate them," said Scutari, a municipal prosecutor who two
years ago led a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Colorado, the
first state in the nation to legalize, to see for themselves how it
was working.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., have approved recreational
marijuana, and New Jersey was expected to be in the next wave, behind
Massachusetts. But some New Jersey lawmakers are suggesting
alternatives, and legal pot may not be a certainty after all, at least
for now.

New Jersey State Senator Nicholas Scutari (right), a Democrat, and
Senator Kip Bateman, a Republican, look at a marijuana clone displayed
during a tour of Colorado marijuana grow centers in 2016.

Last September, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 59 percent of
New Jersey residents supported legal pot, while a Rutgers-Eagleton
poll conducted in November pegged the number at 53 percent. Then, last
month, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found support had dropped to 42

"We're starting with a blank slate, looking at all the options,"
Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, a Democrat, said last week as he convened
the first hearing on legalization at the New Jersey statehouse this

Danielsen is "Switzerland, very neutral" on the topic, said Wayne
Dibofsky, his chief of staff.

As the chairman of the obscure Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations
Committee, Danielsen invited more than two dozen speakers to testify
for and against legalization during a five-hour, standing-room-only

He plans to hold three more hearings across the state -- this time to
gather public input -- over the next three months. Meanwhile, at least
15 competing marijuana bills, each with a different flavor and vision,
have been proposed in the Assembly, signaling a lack of consensus.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who had cosponsored Scutari's bill, broke
away last month and introduced his own plan. It's very similar to
Scutari's proposal, but it would allow people to grow marijuana plants
at home, a rallying point for marijuana activists and
medical-marijuana patients who say that provision will make cannabis
more affordable and accessible.

Scutari and Gusciora, a Democrat from Mercer County, had pioneered the
state's medical-marijuana program, which was adopted eight years ago.
But they spent years holding hearings and building a consensus among
lawmakers before the program was finally approved. Pennsylvania
launched its own program a few weeks ago as dispensaries opened.

A growing room at Compassionate Sciences Alternative treatment center
in Bellmawr, N.J.

Some New Jersey lawmakers now say they prefer expanding and improving
the medical-marijuana program rather than legalizing cannabis
outright. Currently, only patients with one of a dozen or more
conditions qualify to use marijuana, with a doctor's consent. A
special panel last year recommended that chronic pain and a variety of
other ailments be added to the list.

Under most legalization plans, adults 21 and over would be able to
purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis for recreational or
medical use. The purchases would be taxed. Murphy has said he expects
this could generate about $300 million in state revenue each year.

Last month, Sen. Ron Rice Sr., a Democrat who leads the black caucus,
proposed an alternative to legalization. He introduced a bill to
decriminalize marijuana – that is, treat possession of small
amounts like a traffic ticket, with a civil fine. He invited
representatives of an anti-legalization group, New Jersey Responsible
Approaches to Marijuana Policy, to speak at his news conference when
he unveiled the plan.

Rice said that one of the arguments for legalization is that
minorities are disproportionately arrested and jailed for marijuana
possession. His bill would address that problem without risking an
increase in drug addiction that legalization could spark, he said.

"Expectations were high that Murphy would get this done quickly," said
Jay Lassiter, a marijuana activist from Cherry Hill and former
statehouse lobbyist who has watched the issue closely. But Lassiter
said lawmakers have split into factions and legalization may now be
delayed many more months.

Legal pot has also become a hot topic at community meetings, churches,
town councils, and civil rights gatherings as people come to grips
with how it could impact their lives.

The Ocean and the Monmouth County freeholder boards recently passed
resolutions opposing recreational pot. Likewise, local officials in
Point Pleasant and Berkeley, at the Shore, voted to ban dispensaries.
Other towns, including Asbury Park and Jersey City, have taken a
position in support of legalization.

Last week, the NAACP in Gloucester County sponsored a meeting and
discussion titled "Marijuana Legalization, Faith, Facts and Fiction"
that drew about 150 people to a Woodbury church. "As New Jersey
considers marijuana legalization, it is vitally important that the
faith community weighs in. The history, the effects and the
devastation marijuana prohibition has had on community of color is
undeniable," the announcement said.

A panel that included religious leaders, civil rights, elected and law
enforcement officials discussed marijuana legalization at a forum at
Bethel AME Church in Woodbury on Thursday. Richard Smith, president of
the NAACP State Conference, said the matter is a civil rights issue.

The hearing held by Danielsen's Assembly committee to gather input
from South Jersey residents will be Saturday, April 21, at 9 a.m. at
Rowan University. Danielsen said that after the committee weighs the
testimony it already took and after listening to comments from the
public, the Assembly will be ready to take a closer look at the
various proposals to legalize marijuana.

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.
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