TRENTON — Marijuana legalization could be coming to New Jersey if one state Senator’s bill succeeds in legislature before the end of the session. Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-22), fresh from his trip to Colorado to tour the state’s dispensaries and consult with state officials on the rollout of their successful legalization effort, said that he is hopeful he can get Trenton to follow in that state’s footsteps despite resistance from Governor Chris Christie on the issue.
Scutari said at a State House press conference that he expects he will be able to draft a comprehensive bill and rally support for the measure before the end of this session. He acknowledged, however, that he has been in touch with certain of the Democratic frontrunners in the race to succeed Christie in 2017.
“You’re going to have a new administration next year,” Scutari said. “And we’re going to see which one and what they’re going to do with it.
“I know that Mr. Murphy has already indicated publicly that he would sign a legalization. I know that no one has talked negatively about it.”
As for the rest of the Democratic shortlist, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) have said they would consider legalization while Jersey City Steve Fulop has not taken a position.
The governor has said he will veto any legalization bill. Christie reluctantly signed legislation allowing edible THC tablets as part of the medical marijuana program last year, but balked at expanding the list of qualifying conditions to include PTSD back in March (THC is the active chemical in marijuana).
Though New Jersey already has a medical marijuana program in place, only those with severe chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, and cancer for a maximum of two ounces of cannabis a month with a doctor’s approval. If Scutari’s framework is successful, New Jersey would offer medical and recreational cannabis side-by-side at licensed dispensaries.
Recreational users would have to be 21 years of age or older, and similar DUI laws would apply with an established legal limit of cannabinoids in drivers’ bloodstreams. Colorado has taken in over $135 million in fees and taxes since its first recreational dispensaries opened in 2014.
Left-leaning advocacy group New Jersey Policy Perspective estimated in a May report that New Jersey could take in as much as $300 million a year if it legalized and regulated the drug and implemented a 25 percent sales tax.
Colorado passed its own legalization plan through constitutional channels, presenting voters with a ballot question that passed 55-45% in 2012. Despite the proliferation of ballot questions in New Jersey — Democrats are seeking a path around the governor on increases to the minimum wage, new casinos in North Jersey and a mandate that the state make quarterly pension payments — Scutari said it would be wiser to go the legislative route.
“Their administration’s hands are a little tied on some of the things that they can do, because they have to go back to voters” Scutari said. “That’s why lawmakers can’t shirk their responsibilities and put this on the ballot.”
Asked about the potential for legalization to drive up usage, Scutari cited the prevalence of illegal marijuana in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“Yes there’s marijuana in New Jersey, believe it or not,” he said. “Here, I bet you could go pretty close to this building. Anybody want to take a walk and see how quickly we can get it?”