Should New Jersey legalize recreational marijuana?

Supporters and opponents are bolstering their arguments in preparation for 2018, when a new governor may shift what has been strong resistance from Gov. Chris Christie.

“With legalization, it can be decriminalized. Right now, we’re doing more harm to our young adults who are using,” said Dominick “Nick” Bucci, a former State Police trooper and a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “You can get over an addiction but never a conviction.”

Gov. Jon Corzine signed the state’s medical marijuana program into law in 2010. Christie expanded it last year to include PTSD patients, but he said he would veto any effort to legalize the drug for recreation.

Supporters want a state-taxed and regulated system. Opponents say legal recreational marijuana is prone to major pitfalls and has not worked extremely well in other states.

Some groups and legislators are leading the charge to regulate — and profit from — a legal marijuana marketplace. They include Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, Senate President Steve Sweeney and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy said he would legalize recreational marijuana should he become governor.

A report by New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform said a legalized system could bring in more than $300 million annually in direct state taxes. That revenue, the report said, could be used to create summer jobs for youth, purchase more textbooks and pay for inpatient drug treatment beds.

But some drug prevention and addiction organizations such as Cape Assist and Join Together Atlantic County, along with law-enforcement officers and groups such as Impact NJ, a prevention and education coalition, say legalization is not the answer. And they are prepared to fight legalization attempts.

“A lot of people who are using and addicted need help, not arrest, but the way to do it is not to make it legal,” said Katie Faldetta, executive director at Cape Assist. “That would send a message to kids that marijuana use is OK and it’s not.”

A majority of state residents support legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for adults 21 and older, according to the most recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll in 2015. The poll found support strongest among Democrats as well as millennials between the ages 18 and 34.

That’s exactly what worries legalization opponents about a possible marijuana marketplace.

Lena Grey, of North Wildwood, said she was concerned not only about the legal ramifications of marijuana laws, but how they could affect her son. As a mother, Grey said she did not want legalization of yet another drug that could be out in the community.

Faldetta said while many organizations such as Cape Assist support decriminalization of marijuana possession, she fears a legalized marketplace would make marijuana even more accessible to teens than it already is.

Some legislators have modeled their proposed laws after those of other states. Colorado and Washington legalized the drug for recreational use in 2013. California, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska, Maine and Massachusetts have since followed.

Scutari previously led a bipartisan team on a fact-finding trip to Colorado to examine the state’s recreational marijuana industry. He said in a statement after that trip that he saw the benefits New Jersey could reap from a well-regulated system that was working well in Colorado.

But other state officials paint a different picture. Kevin Wong, a crime and intelligence analyst for the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area, said Colorado has seen negative impacts after legalization.

Wong said Colorado law-enforcement agencies and other state departments have witnessed increases in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, use among youth and adults, diversion for unintended purposes and costs for public health and safety.

The state collected more than $150 million in taxes from legal marijuana sales in its first year of legalization, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, and some communities have put that money toward public issues, such as homelessness.

But Wong and other drug-diversion experts said the economic boom has seen its fair share of illegal growers, money laundering and abuse of its medical marijuana program.

Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, listened to Wong’s statements at a legislative breakfast in Ocean City last week.

He said it made him doubt New Jersey could successfully escape the same problems.

“I still stand by some of the medical benefits of marijuana use and programs in New Jersey are being strictly regulated,” he said. “But in other states, it sounds like some programs are being completely abused.”

Contact:

609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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