TRENTON – At Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearing on whether New Jersey will join the four states that have legalized marijuana, State Senator Joe Kyrillos (R-13) spoke out against the proceedings themselves and against chair Nick Scutari (D-22) for excluding anti-legalization witnesses. Testimony from pro-legalization advocates pointed to a dramatic increase in marijuana arrests relative to population growth, and questioned the coherence of Governor Chris Christie’s drug policy record.
After Udi Ofer of the ACLU of New Jersey spoke to predicted gains in state tax revenue and a decrease in disproportionate arrests and incarcerations in the state’s black communities, Kyrillos accused Scutari of assembling a skewed panel.
“All four of the panelists have been very eloquent, and congratulations to you for choreographing this with so much publicity,” said Kyrillos. “I don’t agree with the effort, but I do want to hear all the evidence and I do want to hear all the advocacy, but I also want to hear from people who don’t think this is a good idea.”
The panels included policy advocates, doctors and representatives from law enforcement. Saying that he would like to hear an equal amount of anti-legalization testimony from a similar cross-section, Kyrillos offered that although he is not opposed to decriminalization or changes to the law, he wants to stop short of full legalization.
Kyrillos called Scutari’s willingness to hear that testimony into question.
“I am told that the County Prosecutors’ Association specifically wanted to come to this meeting, had testimony prepared, told me that they were coming, and were denied the opportunity to testify. If that’s the case, I’m sure you know that’s the case. I’m very glad to hear that they’ll have a chance some day.”
“Quite frankly, county prosecutors do not prosecute marijuana possession charges,” said Scutari in return. “In fact, I can tell you mine, they don’t even want to prosecute cocaine charges.”
“Possession charges are at the sole discretion of municipal prosecution,” Scutari added.
Ofer answered senators’ questions about the data presented on arrests and incarceration from marijuana enforcement,
“We now have a governor who says if he becomes president, he will arrest individuals in Colorado and Washington,” said Ofer, alluding to remarks Christie made on the presidential campaign trail. “That’s the tone that’s been set in the state.”
“Governor Christie has been a champion of talking about the failure of the war on drugs. And we’ve commended him constantly on that,” he qualified.
“About half of all drug arrests in New Jersey are from marijuana. So here we have a governor who talks about how the war on drugs has failed, when about half of the war of drugs is on the war on marijuana.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney was present at Monday’s hearing, staying for only a few minutes but taking a lap around the room to shake hands as the testimony continued. With a rally for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants audible from the committee room and union prison guards protesting Christie’s veto of a workers’ compensation bill earlier in the day, Sweeney had reason to smile at the emboldened progressive pushback.
At one point, Kyrillos offered a vivid personal anecdote on his opposition to any future legalization push.
“I recently was at a concert at Madison Square Garden where you would think marijuana use was legal in the state of New York. It was prolific. It was Woodstock in Madison Square Garden. I’m not sure that’s what we want in New Jersey and what we want in our society.”