POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Marijuana bill amendments do little to change mind of key opponent

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Assemblyman Jamel Holley has taken the initiative on legalized marijuana. He has taken the bill introduced by state Sen. Nick Scutari, the prime mover on recreational marijuana, and tried to make it more widely acceptable.

“I took the approach, since this is going to happen in the state of New Jersey, why not thrust myself into the conversation and to provide opportunities for minorities, and women, and people who look like me to be a part of this discussion for the legalization of marijuana,” Holley said.

Holley was part of a legislative delegation that visited Colorado to see how legalization works there. He’s been supportive of the concept ever since.

The chief obstacle in Trenton to marijuana legalization has been the Legislative Black Caucus, led by Sen. Ron Rice.

Holley’s amendments appear to be designed to win over members of the Black Caucus, but they are not winning over Rice.

“New Jersey is not Colorado. The demographics here are very, very different,” Rice said.

Wednesday, Rice gave us a litany of reasons why marijuana legalization makes no sense. He said the neighborhood outside his office is ripe for exploitation by those peddling pot, which he sees as a major gateway drug.

“I’m five blocks away from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey which is a predominant rich, upper-middle class, white community, college community. What we know is that when you legalize marijuana recreationally, the number of people who’ve never used any type of drugs goes up substantially in terms of drug use,” Rice said.

The Scutari bill limits the number of marijuana dispensaries statewide, including medical, to 218. Holley would amend that to allow state regulators, a so-called Division of Marijuana Enforcement, to set the number every year.

“I envision we may have more. We have 566 municipalities in the state of New Jersey, and I’m sure that municipalities, over 216, may want to have the opportunity to provide this type of service into their communities,” said Holley.

Another Holley amendment would make it easier for those convicted of marijuana possession to have their criminal records expunged.

“Expungements have to happen. I will not support it unless there’s language in there to support expungement. There’s individuals who look like me, and those individuals who do not look like me, that are incarcerated for little, small portions of marijuana,” Holley said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the same thing this week.

“You can’t incarcerate somebody who did something on Friday, and allow someone who did the same thing on Monday to do it legally,” Murphy said.

Holley’s other amendments would make it easier for small businesses to get a piece of the action and spell out exactly how the tax revenue would be divvied up by the state.

“If in fact we legalize recreational marijuana, right across the street from my office they’re going to put up stores. They want to call them dispensaries, but they’re going to be stores that do retail selling cupcakes with marijuana, candies with marijuana, sex toys and oils with marijuana, lipsticks with marijuana, all those kinds of products that kids can get and people can get,” Rice said.

So the marijuana debate continues. Some see legalization as a progressive reform with many benefits. Others see it as a road to ruin. Take your pick.