With a Democratic majority in both houses in Trenton and a new governor who prominently supported legalizing marijuana in his campaign, New Jersey seems destined to join a growing number of states that choose to defy federal law and allow the drug to be sold and used.
Not so fast, says state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, one of a handful of Democrats in the Legislature who suggest putting the brakes on the move to full legalization.
“With all of the issues we have in New Jersey, all of the things we need to get done, I don’t think the top of that list should be the need for more recreational drugs,” Van Drew said in a recent interview. “I think this is something we should slow down on.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney has said he plans to fast-track legalization this year. The issue even earned a mention in Gov. Phil Murphy’s inauguration address Jan. 12, along with a list of progressive priorities he outlined in the speech. Murphy replaced Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a steadfast opponent of marijuana legalization.
According to Van Drew, the proposal has strong support among Democrats in the Senate, but he is among five or six in his party who oppose it. But a few Republicans are also in favor, so there is a chance for passage this year, he said.
“I think it’s going to be tight,” he said. “I don’t think they’re there yet.”
According to Trish Graber, the communications director for the Senate majority, Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana and create a state division of marijuana enforcement. It is identical to a bill introduced last session, and will need approval of the senate judiciary committee – where Scutari is chairman – to move on to a vote on the senate floor.
Scutari was unavailable for an interview before this newspapers's deadline. In a published opinion piece, he cited Colorado’s success as part of his reason to support legalization.
Van Drew described his position as nuanced. He is in favor of expanding New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws to allow the drug to be used in treating illnesses that are currently excluded, and he also wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot for personal use.
“I think too many people are just sitting around in jail cells,” he said. “It doesn’t help anyone.”
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Instead of being arrested, under Van Drew’s vision someone found in possession of marijuana could receive a misdemeanor summons, something not much more serious than a traffic ticket. That is the current model in New York City and Philadelphia, where marijuana arrests are down dramatically in recent years.
“However, I do not support the legalization of marijuana,” he said.
Van Drew, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Congress this year to run for the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, said his is not a particularly popular position at the moment.
“This will give more people a chance to yell at me,” he said in an interview.
Proponents of legalization point to the potential tax windfall. In Colorado, for instance, high taxes on recreational marijuana have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, with millions going to rebuild schools around the state.
But Van Drew suggests that is not the entire story. He said that on recent visits to Denver, he has seen an increase in the number of homeless people in the Mile-High City, increased traffic accidents and more young people using the drug since legalization.
“With all of the issues we have in New Jersey, all of the things we need to get done, I don’t think the top of that list should be the need for more recreational drugs,” he said. “I think this is something we should slow down on.”
One issue for police in Colorado, according to published reports, is determining when someone is high on marijuana. In each state that has allowed recreational use, it is illegal to drive under the influence, similar to laws against driving drunk.
But while there are well-established measures for determining alcohol intoxication, pot is more of a challenge. Traces of the drug can remain in the body long after the effects have worn off.
“Why don’t we figure that out before we do this,” said Van Drew.
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Legalization advocates including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, point to what they see as an unfair application of the current law. Several studies have indicated that while a similar percentage of blacks and whites report marijuana use in surveys, a far greater percentage of African Americans are arrested, convicted and jailed on marijuana-related charges.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey report from spring of 2017, tens of thousands of people are arrested on marijuana charges in the state each year, with Cape May County having the highest per-capita arrest rate.
Since Colorado voted to change its constitution to allow for legal recreational marijuana, it has grown into a billion-dollar industry, and more and more states are joining the trend, despite indications of a federal crackdown from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
As far as the federal government is concerned, marijuana remains illegal, including its use as medicine. It remains listed as a Schedule I drug, reserved for the most dangerous and addictive drugs, along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD, meaning doctors cannot legally prescribe it.
Sessions has moved to roll back Obama-era rules that offered some protection for growing and selling the drug under state rules. But in most states, some kind of medical marijuana is legal, and eight states and the District of Columbia have approved some level of sale for recreational use.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed a law this week legalizing marijuana possession in that state. It is now legal in seven states, plus the District of Columbia, and voters in Massachusetts and Maine have also approved ballot measures that are expected to take effect later this year.