New Jersey Assembly Committee Considers Legal Marijuana

The Democrat-led legislature is split on whether to legalize or just decriminalize the drug.

The Assembly chamber in the New Jersey statehouse. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

New Jersey lawmakers began hearing testimony on Monday about whether they should legalize marijuana for recreational use, as the weed debate ramps up in the Garden State.

The Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee hosted a public hearing on pot—the first action taken on the issue in the Assembly under Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). The committee did not consider specific legislation and plans three more public hearings across the state.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who took office in January, wants to legalize marijuana for recreational use, arguing prohibition of the substance has led to racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions. Legal weed sales could also create jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, proponents say.

But the Democrat-led legislature is split on whether to legalize or just decriminalize the drug.

Speakers at the hearing included cops, doctors, lawyers and other experts, some of whom came from as far California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Nevada—four of nine states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Many argued that decriminalization doesn’t go far enough to combat racial disparities in arrests or to stamp out the black market for pot.

“After Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana in 2008, the number of arrests, of course, went down significantly, but racial disparities among those arrested, I’m sorry to say, have only increased,” said Shaleen Title, commissioner of Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission.

Dan Pabon, a Colorado assemblyman, said he voted against the 2012 constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana in his state. But now he credits Colorado’s system of regulating recreational marijuana for keeping the drug out of the hands of criminals and children.

“You can’t allow possession without allowing the purchase and cultivation,” he said. “You have to own the whole territory—from seed to sale—in order to take out the black market.”

The hearing was packed with legal marijuana supporters—and the smell of pot was in the air inside a state house elevator. The first opponent of legalizing weed didn’t speak until more than two hours after the hearing started and after more than a dozen people testified in favor.

Todd Raybuck, a police captain for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said legal marijuana in Nevada has strained local law enforcement because police departments have limited resources to thwart illegal marijuana sales and regulate licensed marijuana businesses.

“Despite the availability of a legal marijuana market, the marijuana black market has also flourished in Nevada since legalization,” he added. “The legal possession of one ounce of marijuana has given street dealers the cover to carry marijuana for sale without scrutiny.”

A bill sponsored by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union) would allow New Jersey residents 21 and over to posses up to one ounce of marijuana and establishes a taxed and regulated commercial market. Another bill expected to be introduced soon by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) would differ from Scutari’s bill by allowing people to grow marijuana at home and require different licenses for marijuana growers and sellers.

Meanwhile, the legislative black caucus, led by Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), is pushing for decriminalizing the drug instead of full legalization. New Jersey Assembly Committee Considers Legal Marijuana