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Is Marijuana Legalization the Right Choice for New Jersey?

Recreational marijuana use is being considered for legalization in New Jersey, and it appears that more and more residents are seriously considering the option. One recent poll found that about 58 percent of New Jersey residents are in support of a bill that would legalize recreational use of the drug, with 39 percent against the idea.

Governor Chris Christie has made it clear that he will not sign into law any bill that supports recreational use of marijuana, yet both the New Jersey Assembly and State Senate are working up legislation to that effect. Is this the right choice for New Jersey?

Supporters

Supporters of the initiative believe that prohibition is a failed measure that ultimately results in unnecessary arrests that not only ruin the lives of the people involved unnecessarily but waste taxpayers’ money. A 2010 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that marijuana arrests in New Jersey accounted for more than 43 percent of all arrests that year – a pricey venture at an average of 24,000 arrests per year.

There are racial implications as well. The ACLU also found that African Americans in New Jersey were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasian Americans even though, nationwide, Caucasian Americans and African Americans use marijuana at about the same rate.

As a result of these findings, supporters believe that New Jersey would be a fairer place and better managed financially if marijuana were legal.

The Argument Against

Though it may initially seem that there are savings to be had from legalizing marijuana, only about 4.2 percent of the New Jersey budget is spent on the $197 million to cover the law enforcement officers and costs associated with court and corrections, according to reports from 2010 from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Those who are against marijuana legalization point out that the costs associated with legalization have the potential to be far greater than those associated with management of current laws. These include healthcare costs, law enforcement and judicial costs related to illegal production or distribution of the drug, and costs related to law enforcement around driving under the influence and use of the drug by minors, and the incalculable costs of lost productivity for those who struggle with addiction

Michael Richards is Newton’s Chief of Police. He believes that costs would rise for his department because use of the drug would increase.

Says Richards: “There’s a chance that, if it were legalized it wouldn’t reduce our drug enforcement efforts, it would increase the amount of work we have with drug enforcement efforts because more people would be more likely to expand their drug use.”

Francis Koch, a prosecutor in Sussex County, expressed similar sentiments. Says Koch: “It’s not like we are focusing any specific amount of work towards marijuana and that’s going to be freed up. That’s not what happens. We’re not going to have a 20 percent increase in manpower to focus on all other crimes. I don’t think the monetary impact is going to be a panacea of money that people think it’s going to be. The societal cost, just like with alcohol, has grave expenses that the taxes can’t cover.”

Because current marijuana law enforcement comes out of other law enforcement efforts (e.g., traffic law enforcement and making arrests for other criminal behaviors), it is unlikely that police departments or court systems would find great relief through legalization of marijuana. Many point to the problems faced by law enforcement in Colorado: Increased rates of drugged driving, issues with marijuana use in the workplace, and an increasingly “stoned community” are causes for concern.

Ending the War on Drugs

While it is clear that incarceration for nonviolent drug-related offenses is largely ineffective in helping the individual or the community, it is not clear that the answer should be legalization of substances, including marijuana. Rather, it may be more effective to maintain current standards concerning legalization status of marijuana and other drugs but change the approach to addressing that issue. Instead of incarcerating someone engaging in criminal behaviors related to drug use, connect them with treatment resources that can help them heal. This, in turn, will benefit communities that are disproportionately targeted in drug-related arrests, allowing them to access a range of resources that can lead to an improved quality of life not only for them but for their families as well – a personal benefit as well as a benefit to the community at large.

What Do You Think?

How should current laws concerning marijuana change, or should they? Is legalization the real issue, or do we need to change our approach to how we assist people who are struggling due to use of the drug?