TRENTON — New Jersey is poised to legalize recreational marijuana after a committee approved a complex bill Monday that supporters said will rectify years of unfair prosecution of minorities for drug possession.
Opponents said it would result in more reliance on drugs as the opioid crisis swirls around us, along with more traffic fatalities and mental health problems.
The bill sets up the regulatory framework for treating marijuana like alcohol, restricting its sale to those 21 and older; taxing it at about 12 percent, with 2 percent potentially going to municipalities; and regulating who can sell it. It would allow for more points of sale in cities with high rates of marijuana arrests, including Atlantic City.
The joint Senate Budget and Appropriations and Assembly Appropriations Committee meeting featured four hours of testimony. The vote was 7-4 with two abstentions on the Senate side, and 7-3 with one abstention on the Assembly side.
Pleasantville’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church Pastor Willie Dwayne Francois III spoke in favor of the bill, saying marijuana criminalization law is rooted in white supremacy, used to control and harm people of color.
“It would seem we would like to take the opportunity to strike a blow in that history,” said Francois. “I think legalization of marijuana gets us closer to dismantling structures of white supremacy.”
He called laws criminalizing marijuana a “legal suction machine of mass incarceration.”
Another local resident spoke in opposition to the bill.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, of Brigantine, said marijuana marketers will target the young, who are facing record levels of anxiety and depression.
“What you are really after today is quick financial fix,” said Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. That was was why budget committees had taken up the bill, he said, because legislators expect the tax and economic benefits of legalization to be huge.
“As a former addict myself, I can tell you quick fixes don’t work,” said Kennedy. “You are going to have more problems in the long run. Deal with racial problems and racial bias but do not conflate the two (social justice and legalization).”
The bill (S2703/A4497) will likely face more scrutiny in the full Legislature, where it may not have enough votes to pass. Gov. Phil Murphy, who favors legalization, has not said if he will support this bill, which provides for less tax revenue than he has said he wants.
It grew out of S2703, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, which was introduced in June and has been substantially amended. But the new version had not yet been made available on the Legislature’s website Monday. It would legalize possession of as much as an ounce of marijuana.
It would set up a program for expungement of minor marijuana convictions, potentially changing the lives of thousands of people who haven’t been able to get jobs, college educations or housing because of prior convictions.
Much of the testimony came from those opposed to legalization. A long list of supporters elected to submit written testimony but not speak.
One of the more unusual opponents was Ed Forchion, who said he’s been calling himself the New Jersey Weedman and advocating legalization of marijuana for 20 years. But he said he doesn’t like the bill because it will give the right to sell to “white guys.”
“The biggest market is the black market,” said the self-described seller of illegal marijuana. “What are you going to do with us?”
Forchion said the bill’s regulatory demands and taxing structure will price marijuana out of the range of poorer people, who will continue to rely on black market dealers.
Other opponents talked about increased traffic fatalities in Colorado and Washington, and increased use of marijuana by minors in two of the 10 states and District of Columbia that have already legalized it for recreational use.
Juan Cartagena of Latino Justice spoke in support of legalization as a way to stop people of color from being unfairly targeted for marijuana possession arrests.
“I graduated from Dartmouth and Columbia ... yet I was picked up by police twice in my life on alleged smoking of marijuana,” Cartagena said. “For a Puerto Rican man in Jersey City, that’s not too unusual. The rate of arrest in Jersey City is three times higher for Latinos than whites. My entire life could have been upended. My service as a judge and civil rights lawyer could have been completely different, if not for fact I didn’t possess it.”
But others stressed the harm that will be done by creating a marijuana industry.
“Do not pass this act with commercialization the way that it is,” said Dr. Calvin Chatlos, a Rutgers professor representing the New Jersey Psychiatric Association.
He said 10 percent to 15 percent of youth who smoke marijuana will become addicted, and the drug usually worsens the pre-existing mental disorders of another 20 percent of youth.
Chatlos estimated that for every $1 raised in new tax revenues from cannabis sales, communities spend up to $4 on dealing with mental health and other issues it worsens.
Committee passage of the bills — called the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Act — allows them to continue to be considered in the Legislature, possibly next week. Further amendments are possible, sponsors said.
The ACLU is asking the bill be amended to allow for home growing of marijuana for personal use, and for using money raised to reinvest in communities harmed by the drug war.
The word “marijuana” has been replaced by “cannabis” in the legislation.