The bills expected to come up for a vote Monday to legalize recreational adult use of cannabis and expunge the records of those who have been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes may not be the same bills made public last week, two state legislators said.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said Sunday they are unsure how they will vote and that much will depend on what is in the final version of the legislation.
On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said he didn’t have the votes needed to pass the legislation in both the Assembly and Senate but that he would work on gaining votes over the weekend.
Murphy, State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin recently announced they had agreed on a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana by those 21 and over, regulate its growing, manufacture of products and its selling, and tax cannabis at $42 an ounce.
It also would expunge the records of those convicted of lower-level marijuana possession and distribution charges and provide set-aside rules to give 15 percent of licenses to businesses owned by women or minorities and 15 percent to disabled veterans.
The public, especially younger people, has come to support the idea over time.
“There is pretty solid support, increasing every time we poll,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.
An October 2018 Eagleton poll found 58 percent favored recreational legalization, and 37 percent opposed it. Almost 70 percent said they believed it would help the state’s economy.
Koning said most residents also favor allowing people to grow cannabis at home, but that is not part of the legislation.
Following are thoughts from those who have spent a lot of time considering the issue.
Lewis S. Nelson, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, doesn’t support recreational legalization. He’s neutral on it.
He is more opposed to medical marijuana, he said, because there haven’t been rigorous trials that show medical cannabis to be safe and effective for medical use.
His concerns about recreational use center around the harm it will do to a small percentage of people who will develop habitual use, or mental illnesses caused by its use.
“What percentage of society do we want to sacrifice so the rest of us can have a good time?” said Nelson, adding that 5 to 10 percent of people will develop a problem with use of it, such as amotivation syndrome, depression or other mental health issues.
“Now, if society feels it’s a good idea to have adult-use recreational cannabis, that’s a society decision,” said Nelson. “Just don’t give it the imprimatur of medical safety and use.”
He acknowledged alcohol is probably worse than cannabis because it impairs judgement and reaction time, while cannabis merely slows it.
But cannabis would add a new mind-altering substance to the mix that will become accessible to young people. People are not likely to replace alcohol with cannabis, but to add cannabis to alcohol, he said.
“I imagine it will be legal,” said Nelson. “I predict 10 years from now we will be looking back saying, ‘What did we do?’”
A philosopher’s concerns
Rutgers philosophy Professor Douglas Husak specializes in legal philosophy, and has come to think there is no good reason to penalize people for using marijuana.
“I think about criminalization, and the conditions that have to be satisfied before it is a good idea or justifiable to create a criminal offense — what the limits of state authority are,” said Husak.
“The burden of proof is always on those who would criminalize,” said Husak, who said he has never seen sufficient justification to make the use of pot a crime.
He has lost interest in related questions, such as regulation, taxation, control of the black market and where to put growing and selling facilities, Husak said.
Those other questions are important, he said, but they are secondary to the question of whether it’s ever rational or justifiable for the state to make the use of marijuana a criminal offense and punish people for it.
As for worries that already wealthy people may end up profiting most from cannabis legalization, Husak said that is the case with almost every legal drug, from coffee to pharmaceuticals.
Poison control for children and adults
Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center, said there would almost certainly be a spike in poisonings related to recreational marijuana.
“Any time a new drug is introduced, including recreational cannabis, poison control centers have consistently reported an increase in poison exposures from that drug in adults and children alike,” she said. “Many of these exposures arise from edible marijuana products, which may look enticing to young children and cause serious consequences.”
Adults can also end up in the hospital from exposure to marijuana edibles, she said, either because the adult does not realize the product contains a high concentration of THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) or because they decide to “dose-stack,” or eat the product too quickly.
“Any legislation should consider how to avert such exposures — such as requiring packaging that is child resistant and does not look child-friendly; warning labels which clearly state ‘THC – Not Safe for Children;’ responsible marketing practices; and dose and pack size limitations.”
Profits predicted to be huge
From a business perspective, Lyneir Richardson, executive director of The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CUEED) at Rutgers Business School, predicted legalized recreational cannabis “will quickly be a $40 billion-dollar-plus industry. And the local economic impact will be huge.”
Richardson said the new industry would strengthen inner-city neighborhoods.
Many entrepreneurs will be people of color, Richardson predicted, and “will seek to work with the product directly — growing or processing it, selling through a retail location, providing a delivery service, etc.”
Richardson said significant profits would also flow to people selling ancillary services, such as security and irrigation systems, software, and construction.