They are all Democrats, but the primary candidates vying for the right to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, differ on how they view legalization of recreational cannabis.

Montclair State University Professor Brigid Harrison, of Longport; West Cape May Commissioner John Francis; and former House Oversight Committee staffer Will Cunningham, of Vineland, favor legalization as a social justice and economic driver.

Former teacher and mental health advocate Amy Kennedy, on the other hand, opposes recreational legalization of marijuana but favors decriminalization and expungement of criminal records. She also favors ending cannabis’ listing as a Schedule 1 drug, defined as the most addictive and having no medical uses.

Changing its listing under the Controlled Substances Act would allow more research to be done on its medical uses and how it affects health, Kennedy said.

“First we should move to decriminalize, and then do the research and see where that takes us,” Kennedy said. “I’m mostly worried about a for-profit industry (selling cannabis) without having done the research, and the impact it would have. We want to make sure our tax dollars don’t have to go back into our public health.”

Harrison, who released a detailed cannabis policy statement this month, wants to legalize cannabis nationally. In addition to promoting social justice, it would generate federal taxes, she said. Harrison suggests imposing a 5% federal sales tax to be used to fund programs to help people get their records cleared, and to help communities affected by large numbers of marijuana arrests, she said.

“If we allow states to take the lead, which they are already doing, we end up with a patchwork system,” said Harrison. “A young man in Pleasantville can get arrested for doing something that — if he had means to fly to Aspen, Colorado — he could do legally.”

About 31,000 people in New Jersey are arrested every year on marijuana charges “for something that is legal in (10) other states. And they are disproportionately young people and people of color,” Harrison said.

Cunningham said he supports a bill passed in November by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee. It would legalize marijuana nationally by removing it from the federal Controlled Substances Act. That would help address inequities in prosecution and incarceration of people of color, he said.

“People of color are incarcerated at a rate three to four times that of whites, despite the fact we know marijuana use is equal in both communities,” Cunningham said.

A majority of Americans support recreational marijuana legalization, Cunningham said, based on polls. “This has been an issue that has over time become more and more accepted and inevitable.”

Kennedy said the bias in the criminal justice system should be addressed in its entirety, rather than relying on legalization of cannabis to eliminate it from one part of the system.

“To the extent decriminalization helps to resolve that, I support it,” Kennedy said. “But I think that stops short of the real work that needs to happen.”

“It’s an agricultural thing to me,” said West Wildwood’s Francis, adding agriculture is a big economic driver in the 2nd District, which covers much of South Jersey. “I’m in total agreement with the governor: We should be growing marijuana, particularly here in the district.”

But Francis said municipalities should retain the right to determine whether cannabis will be grown or sold within its borders.

“I think I would leave that up to each municipality how they want to deal with it,” he said.

Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, of Egg Harbor Township; and former FBI agent Robert Turkavage, of Brigantine, could not be reached in time for comment.

Policies are about more than legalities, Harrison said. They are about how the government affects people’s lives every day.

“One of the things that I saw — my brother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It’s an incredibly painful disease,” Harrison said. “In the last month of his life ... the only thing that provided him relief was cannabis.”

All of the candidates favor medicinal use of marijuana, as does incumbent Van Drew.

“We are quite sure now ... that medical marijuana, if used properly, can certainly help people,” Van Drew said. “I have supported legalizing medical marijuana and expanding its use in a medical sense, as well as enabling more research to occur.”

He also supports decriminalization, but not legalization for recreational adult use.

“I just don’t know that we need another recreational drug,” he said. “And I don’t think it will help urban areas.”

Once taxes are added to the cost, legal cannabis will be so expensive, cheaper black market sales will continue, Van Drew said. And that will mostly affect urban areas, he predicted.

The cost of medical marijuana is also a big problem for lower-income people, Kennedy said. If research is done, and cannabis is shown to be effective in treating particular conditions, its cost could be covered by insurance.

“If we’re saying it has a benefit, let’s get the evidence-based research and get it covered,” Kennedy said.

New Jersey residents will vote on a referendum about whether to legalize recreational cannabis on the state level in November, after state legislators tried and failed to pass a legalization bill last year.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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