By Brenda Flanagan
“We should legalize marijuana for all purposes for 21 and older,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari.
No more blowing smoke. Scutari unveiled hard copy — a hefty 60-page bill to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use in New Jersey — saying the state spends $127 million a year on enforcement efforts that don’t work.
“We’re locking up people for petty charges and creating an unfair obstacle to our residents getting jobs, buying homes and going to college. Legalizing marijuana will take the product out of the hands of street criminals and get drug dealers off our corners,” he said.
Scutari’s bill lets people age 21 years and older buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana and a pound of marijuana-infused product (like brownies), among other items. But no home grown pot will be allowed and towns will be able to prohibit marijuana establishments. Businesses and corporations see a potential green harvest — Colorado reported $1.3 billion in recreational and medical marijuana sales last year.
“And it’s not just about creating jobs, which is critical, and it’s not just about generating tax revenue, which is important. It’s creating entrepreneurs, it’s getting a whole industry together,” said Scott Rudder, President of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
New Jersey legalized medical marijuana use in 2010, but advocates estimate legalizing recreational pot could generate $300 million in taxes for New Jersey. The bill sets a five-year, escalating sales tax that ends at a whopping 25 percent, but starts at only 7 percent.
“We want to make sure that the product is affordable and is not something that we’re not going to get undercut by people selling it illegally. The whole purpose of the program is to get rid of drug dealers,” Scutari said.
Currently, eight states have legalized recreational marijuana and several more states are in the approval pipeline. The legalization movement enjoys widespread public support, although Gov. Chris Christie calls marijuana a gateway drug and vehemently opposes legalization.
“Send me a bill so I can veto it again,” he said May 1. “And if people like Nick Scutari and Steve Sweeney and Phil Murphy want to bring this poison legalized into this state under the proviso that, well, it doesn’t matter because people can buy it illegally anyway, then why not legalize heroin?”
“He’s wrong. He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If there is a gateway drug, I would submit alcohol as a much bigger gateway drug than marijuana. Marijuana is not a gateway drug,” said Jon-Henry Barr, secretary of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association.
Municipal prosecutors in New Jersey support legalization and Scutari’s bill creates a division of marijuana enforcement to regulate the program. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent directive to crack down on drug offenders has raised concerns, but most legalization proponents aren’t too worried about Sessions.
“Well federal prosecution is always a risk, but right now we have over 20 percent of the country that is engaged in legal adult use of marijuana. At least they’ve passed laws for that and I think it’s really impractical and just beyond the realm of possibility for the federal government to essentially crack down on that,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.
Scutari promises the complex bill — based on Colorado’s — will tightly regulate the whole enterprise, from seeds to sales. And Democratic gubernatorial candidates back legalization, even if Christie doesn’t.
“I’ve got the guy right down the hall there that doesn’t want to pass it and is working hard against it. And he can be somewhat, you know, a tough adversary on occasion,” Scutari said.
Scutari says his first task is to introduce the bill and hold hearings to convince his colleagues. He says he’s not sure when it’s going to come up for a vote, but he wants it ready for the next governor to sign.