POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Cannabis bill sees support, questions at Senate hearing

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

As we saw recently, the cannabis industry is rapidly expanding, waiting for more markets to open. So far, 29 states have medical cannabis programs and eight of those have legalized cannabis for recreational use. Today, the state Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on chairman Nick Scutari’s cannabis legalization bill, bringing it one step closer to a vote on the floor.

“Laws that prohibit marijuana have not worked. They simply have failed. It’s time to end those failed laws and create a well-regulated system in New Jersey,” said Scutari.

As it stands right now, the bill:

– Legalizes possession of up to an ounce of cannabis for adults, and legalizes cannabis products, including edibles and concentrates.

– Immediately decriminalizes possession of up to 50 grams (1.7 ounces) until regulations are in place and creates a system for some offenders to expunge their cannabis convictions.

– Creates a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, overseen by state attorney general. The DME will set regulations and license guidelines.

– Establishes a sales tax scale, beginning at 7 percent, escalating to 25 percent after five years.

– Right now, the law would prohibit home growing

– Bans public use

– Allows municipalities to establish local regulations

“You can site all kinds of statistics but numbers are numbers. Colorado went from 40th in job growth to fourth. It’s getting younger. Young people are moving to Colorado,” testified Senate President Steve Sweeney. “Look, there’s always downsides to everything, but there was a hell of a lot more up than down on this one, and I was impressed with my Republican colleagues that went also because we all went with an open mind.”

Sen. Kip Bateman was one of the Republicans who accompanied Scutari, Sweeney and others on a fact-finding trip to Colorado last year.

“I was very impressed,” he said. “I was impressed with the regulations, on how they have it controlled, how clean it was and how they really did their homework setting up the whole framework of regulations, so I’m open-minded on this issue, obviously.”

Those providing testimony today included members of the medical, law enforcement, civic and political communities, most in favor, some with very compelling stories, like former state Republican Party Executive Director Robert Cressen, a former triathlete and marathoner, who suffers from complex regional pain syndrome.

“Today I come to you as a medical cannabis user,” he pronounced. “New Jersey’s cannabis laws are beyond broken. In fact, they actually hurt people. Today we’re poised to right those wrongs, which is why although I really feel miserable this morning, I feel the need to be here today.”

Doctors for Cannabis Regulation founder David Nathan shared some of the history of cannabis laws in New Jersey.

“Marijuana prohibition began in the 1930s over the objections of the American Medical Association, based on scare tactics and fabricated evidence that suggested that the drug was highly addictive, made users violent and was fatal in overdose,” he said. “We now know that none of those assertions are true. Cannabis is less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, it doesn’t make users violent and there are no cases of fatal cannabis overdose documented.”

Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale offered pointed questions to medical professionals and activists like the ACLU of New Jersey, which presented finding from their recent report showing blacks and Latinos are three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites.

“If there were credible studies that showed marijuana use caused multiple sites in the human brain to be punched out in a PET scan study, would that change your judgement, your testimony here today?” he asked Nathan.

“Well, that’s kind of a hypothetical, but anything that causes brain damage, that’s obviously a bad thing. I do not believe that studies show that cannabis causes brain damage in adult humans,” responded Nathan.

“Are you suggesting that law enforcement in the 39th district is racially motivated when they’re doing their job?” Cardinale asked ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou.

“I’m simply suggesting that there is disparate enforcement, but I’m not suggesting any reasons why those racial disparities exist,” she responded. “We encourage the state attorney general’s office to investigate why those racial disparities exist, not only in marijuana enforcement but in enforcement of low-level offenses that also disproportionately affect, impact Latinos as well.”

“I am concerned with respect to false narratives being used to create a major change in our laws,” concluded Cardinale.

The bill is not perfect, or final. Concerns remain over selective enforcement, as well as home cultivation, public consumption and expungement of old cannabis arrests. Nonetheless, the bill could make it to the floor as early as the first quarter of 2018, when there will be a new governor, and, supporters believe, someone eager to sign it.