ATLANTIC CITY — The leader of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus is not convinced legalizing recreational cannabis in this state will benefit minority communities, and wants his peers in Trenton to slow down before taking any action.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said he is concerned about the money behind the pro-legalization movement and the promises of an economic windfall for New Jersey following a public hearing at the Second Baptist Church on the impacts recreational marijuana could have on minority communities.

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam said last week he believes legalization is the “new gold rush” and could be a boon for the resort’s economy. Most of the nine-member City Council have said they want more information about what a state legalization bill would look like before they decide.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Rice noted groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP both have the best intentions supporting cannabis legalization as a social justice issue for minorities, but said lobbyists with deep pockets are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

“We’re not doing the research,” Rice said. “They’re writing the legislation and we’re jumping on board.”

Rice said people of color have been given false promises by the government about well-meaning policies in the past only to have the end result being significant burdens on their communities, using casino-gaming in Atlantic City as an example.

Rice was joined at Tuesday’s hearing — the third and final public session on the subject — by the second vice chair of the state Legislative Black Caucus, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, and Atlantic City officials, including City Council President Marty Small and Councilman Kaleem Shabazz.

Armato said if a vote were taken now, he would not vote to legalize recreational cannabis.

He said legalizing marijuana would only “introduce more drugs that we don’t need in New Jersey.”

”I tend to look at what I know, and what I know is that going down this road is not going to end well,” he said.

Shabazz said he learned several things listening to the nearly four hours of testimony Tuesday, including the negative impact of legalization on people of color in places where cannabis is already legal: In Colorado, for example, young black and Latino people are still arrested for possession at a rate higher than their white counterparts.

Shabazz said the testimony was “enlightening.”

“Going forward, we have to focus on all aspects of the question of marijuana before we take legislative action,” he said.

Most of the speakers at Tuesday’s hearing were against recreational legalization, including religious leaders, law enforcement officials and health professionals, but none was more animated than Salaam Ismial, director of National United Youth Alliance and chairman of the N.J. study commission on violence. Ismial, echoing Rice’s sentiment about minority communities being sold a false premise, told the legislators not to be “bamboozled” by the allure of social justice reform or economic prosperity.

”We oppose legalizing pot on multiple grounds,” he said. “Marijuana will negatively impact poor and minority communities, will never have any economic benefit to poor and minority communities and will have youth more exposed to negative substances that will distort their hope and promise.”

Anthony Catanoso, owner of Steel Pier, said he worries about the impact of legalization on business liabilities.

He said workers at his Boardwalk attraction operate rides that go “100 miles per hour and 200 feet in the air” and questioned whether anyone would want those workers to be impaired by a legal, but mind-altering, substance.

“In our business, it’s unacceptable,” Catanoso said.

John E. Harmon Sr., president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said his group supports legalization as long as it includes language benefiting minority communities.

Harmon said any legislation must include more license opportunities for minority entrepreneurs, a mechanism for vocational and workforce training, funding for drug treatment and subsidies for veterans, seniors, disabled and low-income residents to make home improvements.

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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