Cannabis Legalization Back on the Agenda at Senate Hearing

By David Cruz

Given all that it took to get a medical marijuana program up and running in New Jersey, you might think that the idea of legalizing recreational use of cannabis would be low on the list of agenda items for lawmakers here. But, with states like Colorado and Oregon showing that legalization can prove to be a big budget boon without – so far – a terrible downside, New Jersey lawmakers are planning to at least start seriously talking about it. Senator Nick Scutari will hold a committee hearing on the issue Monday.

“We’re repeating history again,” he said. “We have prohibition of marijuana and all it’s doing is ruining our street corners, our neighborhoods, creating a criminal element, drug dealers that are not paying taxes, that have a cash business and that are selling product that may or may not be pure to our citizens. We have an obligation to safeguard our citizens as well as a financial obligation to fund the state properly, both of which can be accomplished in this program.”

Scutari has been down this road before. He says legalization would create a billion dollar cannabis-based industry, from retail operations to agriculture employment. Pointing to Colorado, which saw $2 million in sales tax revenue in the first month of legalization, Scutari says the state would be irresponsible not to consider it. But most everyone acknowledges that there is one major impediment to a legalization bill.

“I’m anti marijuana,” he told a town hall in New Hampshire recently. “I believe it should still be illegal and if I were president – I said this last night in Keene – If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it until January of 2017 because I will enforce the federal law against marijuana as president of the United States.”

The federal Narcotics Act of 1970 lists Cannabis as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse, lacks accepted safety standards and has no currently accepted medical use, despite the fact that 38 states now have some sort of medical marijuana laws. These are a few of the other drugs that are listed as schedule I by the federal government. It’s a pretty hard core list, but there are still some people, including the governor, who insist that cannabis is a gateway drug.

“Marijuana doesn’t lead to anything but marijuana use,” scoffed Scutari. “No one’s ever died from it; no one’s ever overdosed from it. Alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana has ever been and we allow that everywhere.”

Ultimately, this is a political issue that the state’s next governor will have to deal with, so where do some of the would-be next governors stand on legalization? We talked to a few and the answers were – hazy.

“My goal now is to make sure that small amounts of marijuana, with these people who are charged with these drug charges, don’t have criminal records,” said Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick. “That’s what I’m willing to work with Senator Scutari on, but open sales of legal marijuana, I don’t think we’re quite ready for that in New Jersey.

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a Democrat, said he’s still studying the issue.

“I think that there’s certainly pros and cons,” he said this week, “and we’ve heard both sides of it and we’re trying to learn what works in other states and it’s very early in the conversation still and we wouldn’t wanna do something that has an adverse impact on urban areas like the one I’m responsible for.”

Senator Ray Lesniak said he would consult with those involved in drug recovery efforts before making a decision. “I wanna hear more about the experiences in the states and other countries where it is legal,” he said. “It’s a process; I think ultimately we’ll get there but we need more information before a final decision is made.”

The closest to a direct yes came from Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“I’m very open to it,” he said. “I just want to know how it performed in the other states where it is legal. Because if you’re gonna do something you wanna make it better; you don’t wanna make it worse, and there will be enough date for us to make an educated when the time comes, but I am absolutely wide open to considering it.”

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and ambassador Phil Murphy – two other potential gubernatorial candidates – chose not to weigh in on the question, but those who did seemed to be hinting that – in 2017 – the ground may be fertile enough for a legalization bill to get the governor’s signature.