Backers of pot-decriminalization in N.J. take heart from votes elsewhere

TRENTON – Two states this week approved voter referendums legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, and some advocates in say it’s time that New Jersey follows suit.

On Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington approved marijuana legalization. Under the measures, personal possession of up to an ounce (28.5 grams) of marijuana would be legal for anyone who’s at least 21 years old.

The passed measures will also allow marijuana to be legally sold and taxed at stores, in a system similar to the ones states set up to allow selling of alcohol.

In Washington, in which a 25 percent tax could be applied on each transaction, some $500 million, could be raised according one estimate.

New Jersey already has a medical marijuana law in place, in which patients could make purchases at dispensaries. But the program has been snail-like in implementation, largely stemming from zoning issues in which towns have been reluctant to give approvals for  dispensaries within their borders.

Still, supporters say it’s only a matter of time before marijuana is fully legalized altogether. Groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws are already mentioning the recently passed laws to get New Jersey on the bandwagon.

“Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana!”, NORML-NJ’s website reads. “Volunteer with NORML New Jersey and help bring it to the East Coast!”

Ken Wolski, a nurse and executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, said the state is already moving in the right direction with marijuana decriminalization bills.

In May, the Assembly Judiciary Committee released a bill that would decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana, making it solely a civil penalty.

The bill, A1465, states that a person with 15 grams or less of marijuana would be fined $150 for a first violation, $200 for a second violation, and $500 for a third or subsequent violation.  All fines would be paid to the town where the offense took place.

“We expect to have that dialogue continue in the Senate,” Wolski said. “The process is already well under way. We’re certain it’s going to pass.”

But he doubts the bill will receive a signature from Gov. Chris Christie, who has raised concerns about the possible proliferation of marijuana dispensaries if it goes toward the path of legalization for non-medicinal purposes.

“Inevitably, Gov. Christie is going to go and inevitably marijuana is going to be passed,” Wolski said. “There are just too many compelling arguments (for its implementation).”

At least one legislator said the time has come for outright legalization of marijuana, and not just making exceptions for certain circumstances.

“I think that a calm, sober, intelligent, dispassionate discussion should take place in which all the parties are willing to have a discussion,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, (R-26),  Morris Township, a sponsor of A1465.

He said he doesn’t know if the public is willing to support total legalization of marijuana at this point, but sooner or later, the costs and benefits of policing marijuana need to be considered, he said.

 “How many Al Capones have we created with our Prohibitonary regime,” Carroll asked rhetorically. “The cost of lives ruined exceeded whatever benefits that may have been gained. Maybe we should learn from these other states…I don’t believe costs justify the benefits.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, (D-15), of Trenton, said his top priority is making sure marijuana use will only be a civil penalty. As of this point, he’s not fully supportive of legalizing marijuana entirely.

“We don’t need that kind of stimulus package for the munchies,” Gusciora said about the Washington and Colorado ballot initiatives.

He said not having any control of marijuana could pose more problems, adding he wants to make sure people are productive citizens and are working. “At the end of the day, our marijuana laws are extreme. I just don’t think they are fair. I don’t think the punishment fits the crime.”

Gusciora said his stance could change if it’s proven that it can be a reliable source of tax revenue.  

“If the government can find a way to tax it, than it might have some merit,” he said. “I think it would be interesting to see studies about it.”

The lawmaker said he will be teaching a course on this topic, “Politics of Marijuana,” at The College of New Jersey in Ewing.  

Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence also support bill A1465, saying it will help by not penalizing people for life. They argue the bill will help them live productive lives, enabling them to hold a job and get approval for loans.  

But groups like the New Jersey Prevention Network opposed the bill, saying it would send “a mixed message” to young people, with many believing marijuana use is safe.

Christie also remains skittish about having marijuana approved totally. At a press event in New Brunswick a few weeks ago, he said he was concerned that dispensaries would proliferate upon legalization.

The governor said he wants to make sure the state has a proper medical marijuana law and that dispensaries won’t be set up all over the place, like they are in Colorado. He mentioned a recent “60 Minutes” story, which mentioned that Colorado has more medical pot dispensaries than the number of McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

“I am not going to permit New Jersey to become Denver, Colorado,” he said.

 

Backers of pot-decriminalization in N.J. take heart from votes elsewhere