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New Jersey finds itself at the crossroads of cannabis reform. On the one hand is an intimidating governor who has refused to even consider the possibility of allowing pot into the public sphere; on the other is an ever-growing majority who want to join the number of states who have regulated one of the most popular drugs in America. The current landscape of marijuana legalization in New Jersey could represent the American conversation on the future of cannabis across the land.
In New Jersey, any debate about marijuana reform involves talking about one man: Governor Chris Christie. In office since 2010, Christie made a name for himself as a tough-on-crime federal prosecutor, cleaning up a state that had long been tainted by drug traffickers and organized criminals. As governor, Christie has raised eyebrows for his stringent criticism of the War on Drugs, claiming that the best way to turn the tide against the drug trade is to treat victims as patients, not criminals.
To that end, Christie promoted the use of drug courts and syringe access programs in New Jersey, opening up millions of government dollars to community sites that steer addicts toward treatment. He has also signed legislation that protects drug users from legal prosecution if they call the police to report a drug overdose.
When in Colorado for one of the Republican primary election debates, Christie told local college students to “enjoy [getting high]” while they could, because he intended to “enforce the federal laws,” and ban the sale of marijuana, on his would-be inauguration in January 2017. In Colorado, far away from New Jersey, students didn’t take his threats too seriously, one commenting that “[Christie]’s kind of a joke on campus.”
It would be easy to assume that Chris Christie would be one of the most progressive and liberal governors in America when it comes to drugs, but the Washington Postwrites that the former candidate for Republican nomination for President of the United States “has very complicated views on drugs.”1 While Christie has won admiration and praise for his efforts to humanize the face of drug abuse, his unwavering resistance to anything remotely approaching marijuana reform has been a source of controversy and debate in New England. On the campaign trail, Christie ominously warned that his potential presidency would go after Colorado and Washington for legalizing marijuana; in contrast, the administration of Barack Obama declined to sue the respective state governments for legalizing recreational marijuana use (while cannabis remains illegal on a federal level).2,3
For Christie, however, this is no laughing matter. Informed in part by his devout Catholicism, and in part by a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that found even infrequent marijuana use can change brain functioning and chemistry, Christie committed to not being the governor who tells the children and teenagers of New Jersey that marijuana use is harmless.4
Christie’s opposition to regulating recreational marijuana is so deep-seated that when NJ.com listed what it would take for the Garden State to officially accept cannabis, “Elect a new governor” was the first item. Christie is against nearly anything to do with allowing marijuana into the public sphere of New Jersey, even suggesting that attempts to expand medicinal marijuana are just a “front for legalization.”5
58% of New Jersey residents now support opening up the laws on marijuana
NJ.com notes that Christie’s term expires in January 2018. Meanwhile, 58 percent of New Jersey residents now support opening up the laws on marijuana, according to a Rutgers University-Eagleton Institute poll conducted in June 2015. However, if the law is to be changed, it’s going to take more than a simple majority of voters. Community leaders would have to campaign on the grounds that enforcing current marijuana laws unfairly targets black and Latino people, and draws police resources away from more serious crimes. In October 2016, a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch found that not as many arrests were made for violent crimes, as for the possession of minor amounts of marijuana. “A disproportionate number of those arrested are African Americans,” even though black Americans consume marijuana at a rate that is comparable to white Americans, “but are arrested and prosecuted far more often for having small amounts for personal use.”6
Law enforcement communities, both those in New Jersey and across the country, are split on the issue. On the one hand, there is the acknowledgement that current marijuana laws unfairly target people of color of lower income demographics, while generally giving affluent white Americans an easier time for the same crime. On the other, the idea of legalizing a drug with a potential risk factor is anathema.7 Chris Christie’s vehement opposition to cannabis reform makes life more difficult for marijuana advocates, but with growing support for overturning pre-existing laws, observers in New Jersey wonder how long Christie can afford to hold out.
The answer might be “until he leaves office,” because even when his own residents have used the arguments that won over voters in Colorado and Washington (that marijuana legalization is both inevitable and lucrative), Christie has argued that that can only come to pass “when [he’s] gone.”8
In 2015, Colorado took in $1 billion from their marijuana tax, and the state of Washington was on course to do the same, but Christie “[doesn’t] care about the tax money that may come” from following in those states’ footsteps.9,10 New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated that New Jersey could make about $300 million a year in sales tax revenue.
The figure was determined from federal studies that show the current use of marijuana in New Jersey: 365,900 residents aged 21 and over smoke or consume cannabis products every month, amounting to 2.53 million ounces every year. The street value of an ounce of marijuana is $343, giving the black market $869 million in sales. Legalizing marijuana would bring that market out into the open, making it worth $1.2 billion as consumers in New Jersey and neighboring states made purchases. A sales tax of 25 percent would give New Jersey a cut of $300 million.11
New Jersey could make about $300 million a year in sales tax revenue
Nobody in New Jersey was surprised when, after state Senator Nicholas Scutari put forward a bill that would regulate the growth, ownership, and sale of recreational marijuana, Christie objected to what he said was “the wrong message” being sent to the children of New Jersey. Scutari, on the other hand, argued that his bill would gut the illegal drug market in the state by taking cannabis away from the black market.
But with almost 60 percent of New Jersey residents thinking differently than Christie, their governor has been forced to compromise. Notwithstanding the “enormous addiction problem” in the country, Christie signed bills to loosen the restrictions on children entering a medical marijuana program and to allow sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder access to medical marijuana treatments even as he “vowed” to block efforts by activists to open up other conditions to medical marijuana remedies, such as severe menstrual cramping.12,13,14,15
Christie’s grudging approval of marijuana programs has emboldened reform advocates, especially as he enters the final year of his administration. The three marijuana-related bills introduced in 2016 are unlikely to change Christie’s mind, but lawmakers are optimistic that, at the very least, they will spark discussions.
One of those lawmakers is, like Christie, a registered Republican; but Assemblyman Michael Carroll’s proposal, to allow marijuana to be sold to anyone over the age of 19, with the same permissions and restrictions as tobacco, is completely at odds with Christie’s positions and suggests the degree to which the incumbent governor stands alone on the issue.
Carroll doesn’t see what all the fuss is about, saying that marijuana is “already ubiquitous” enough, that authorizing the product to be sold in convenience stores would be no different from beer and cigarettes being made available for purchase to anyone with a valid ID.
If it sounds far-reaching, Carroll says that that’s the point: to get government out of the quagmire of treating marijuana use like a crime and to instead think of it as a social issue.
Carroll’s bill would also wipe clean the records of past marijuana offenders, remove any limitations on the amount of marijuana that would be legal to possess, and effectively remove any mention of marijuana from New Jersey’s criminal codes.
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Notwithstanding Christie’s infamously vehement opposition, Carroll suggested that “common sense might be contagious,” and that Christie might yet be swayed by one of the more liberal pieces of cannabis reform legislation to be put forward in New Jersey, especially that it comes from “one of the most conservative members of the lower house,” in Politico’s words – a man who describes himself as “the world’s most boring, straightest guy.”16
The “common sense” argument was also made by Reason (legalizing marijuana is more logical than “continuing a destructive and counterproductive fight against it”) and NJ.com (which hoped that “New Jersey’s hard-line marijuana policies” would benefit from Nicholas Scutari’s visit to Colorado).17,18
Other voices in the Garden State are similarly skeptical that Christie will listen to them, but they are focused more on simply starting a conversation that, to them, will end in their favor once Christie leaves office. The fact that voices from both sides of the aisle are collaborating on how to move forward in Christie’s wake is, for them, a sign that New Jersey will open its doors to marijuana sooner, rather than later.19
To that effect, reform advocates are already looking beyond New Jersey. In October 2016, nine lawmakers visited Colorado to see for themselves the impact that marijuana regulation has had there.20 One of them was Nicholas Scutari; another was the Assembly Majority Leader, Lou Greenwald. Their mission was to talk with legislators, members of the Colorado governor’s administration, health officials, cannabis farm owners, cannabis dispensary owners, and the people who were responsible for drafting the constitutional amendment that voters successfully agreed to in 2013.
The purpose of the trip, Scutari said, was “to learn from their experiences and improve on it as much as we can.” It was his second trip to the Centennial State, having made no secret of his interest in the “big money and […] great savings to the state” that can come from regulating marijuana.
Upon his return to New Jersey, Scutari was “more convinced than before” that his home state should follow in Colorado’s footsteps, saying that he saw no detrimental effects of cannabis being sold publicly. His other recommendations included:
Not everyone who opposes Chris Christie’s position goes so far as to endorse Nicholas Scutari’s stance. Raymond Lesniak, a state senator, attorney, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a veteran advocate for judicial reform, drug law reform, and drug recovery services, expressed concern at the negative effects of throwing the door open to marijuana legalization.22 In an op-ed piece, Lesniak wrote that the rate at which young people use marijuana in the states that have legalized the drug should be a warning sign.
Furthermore, Colorado experienced a 51 percent increase in the number of children aged 18 and under who had to receive emergency room treatment for incidents related to marijuana use. In terms of crime, “the black market business continues for underage sales,” with drug rings often using stronger strains of the marijuana than those legally sold at dispensaries. In the jurisdictions in Colorado where marijuana was legalized, crime rates for both narcotics and “overall” crimes have increased by 10 percent since marijuana went above board.
He also cited reporting that showed “how Colorado marijuana legalization policies have harmed public safety and health,” such as:
Lesniak argues that the key is not legalization, but decriminalization (removing the criminal and monetary penalties for possessing marijuana without addressing the actual consumption of the drug, or how it is taxed or used, and depriving businesses the legal grounds to promote and market cannabis) “would help avoid the negative consequences of marijuana.”
But Lesniak is not done, and his conclusion addresses the key point in the current landscape of marijuana legalization in New Jersey. “We should not close the door to legalization,” he says, suggesting that decriminalization is the first step to establishing a strong foundation from which to properly launch a successful cannabis market in New Jersey. Such a launch would focus on education and treatment, before implementation, to minimize the negative effects that Colorado suffered in its first year of legalization. The education would also extend to law enforcement and the court system, especially in the context of young people using marijuana and drivers being under the influence of marijuana.
For now, however, research indicates a “no” to the question of whether marijuana should be legalized; issues of social justice, on the other hand (which Lesniak does not address in detail) say “yes” to the question of whether marijuana should be decriminalized.
The New Jersey Herald agrees with some of the points Lesniak raised. For many in public health, law enforcement, and policymaking, legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes is “frightening.” A further issue is “the lack of recognized scientific research on marijuana,” a result of the federal government categorizing cannabis as a Schedule I drug (like heroin and LSD), which greatly restricts the amount of research that can be carried out with marijuana; research that could significantly swing the pendulum in the reform debate.23
The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes that only 9 percent of the people who use marijuana will develop an addiction to the drug; however, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration are deadlocked on which agency can make the first move in loosening the restrictions around cannabis, restrictions that that will allow scientists to use it in clinical trials that might assuage the fears of some of the entities that the New Jersey Herald mentioned.24
Every 22 minutes, a New Jersey resident is arrested for possessing marijuana, a rate that is double that of the United States overallThe Washington Post calls the standoff between the DEA and the FDA a “bureaucratic catch-22,” which is the result of outdated marijuana laws that have led to “contradictory and confusing” legal positions on whether the drug should – or even could – be legalized. The Cato Institute went so far as to call current US drug policy “bizarre,” a sentiment that many in New Jersey share.25
One cannabis joint can put someone in jail for six months and net a $1,000 fine, as well as a two-year suspension on a driver’s license
The point is echoed by the Star-Ledger editorial board, saying that New Jersey’s own drug laws go beyond “merely archaic” and into “destructive.” Every 22 minutes, a New Jersey resident is arrested for possessing marijuana, a rate that is double that of the United States overall. Such arrests (24,000 people per year) cost New Jersey $127 million. Owning just one joint can put someone in jail for six months and net a $1,000 fine, as well as a two-year suspension on a driver’s license. The ensuing criminal record could cost the person their job or a future job; immigrants could be deported; students could lose financial aid; would-be parents would be banned for five years from adopting a child; and low-income people could be slapped with a three-year ban from public housing. Meanwhile, millions of New Jersey residents enjoy marijuana in the privacy of their own homes.
An attorney who handles many such cases says that the status quo is “ridiculous.” What usually happens to someone arrested for possessing marijuana is that the person pays a fine and has the charges conditionally dismissed; if no further legal infractions take place in the following six months, the case is dismissed.
For this reason, say the Star-Ledger board, Chris Christie’s last day in office in January 2018 has been “a long time coming.”26 Some advocates are crossing their fingers that marijuana could be legalized even before that date, such is the momentum that cannabis reform has gathered since Colorado and Washington followed the will of their voters. Chris Christie’s own problems, from the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, to his failed 2016 bid for the Republican nomination for president (and subsequently joining forces with the eventual nominee, Donald Trump), have led to his approval ratings dropping to a record low. While he will likely not leave office before his term expiring, he no longer enjoys the support he did, and his staunch position against marijuana legalization isolates him further.27
One of the people who might replace him, Phil Murphy, has been vocal in his support of legal recreational marijuana. Murphy has thrown his weight behind cannabis reform efforts but admits that, as the father of four teenagers, he had to consider the decision very carefully.28 Murphy’s Democratic Party is “heavily favored” to win New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, says Politico, which points out that the politics of marijuana legalization in the state have changed to the point where lawmakers on either side of the aisle aren’t waiting for their governor’s last day in office. Even as they acknowledge that marijuana reform will likely never happen under Chris Christie’s watch, they are openly speculating about constitutional amendments or veto overrides.29
This is not the first time New Jersey has experimented with various forms of cannabis reform, but advocates are more optimistic than they have been in a while. Chris Christie’s political trouble, the end of his administration being only a year away, and unprecedented degrees of cooperation between Senate Democrats and Republicans, suggest that the current landscape of marijuana legalization in New Jersey could change in a very big way.