The Great Marijuana Fight Begins in New Jersey’s State Senate

The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony yesterday in support of S-3195, Save Jerseyans, a bill sponsored by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-District 22) that aims to legalize marijuana in the Garden State.

Legalization has been a provocative issue for years now and while Governor Christie has been clear that he would not support it, the potential for a liberal Governor has supporters ramping up their efforts.

But before the #LegalizeNJ crowd gets too excited about this, allow me to go over some of the most notable provisions in this bill:

  • It would legalize possession and personal use of marijuana (up to an ounce) for adults age 21 and over.
  • Decriminalize possession of marijuana, up to 50 grams.
  • Create a New Jersey Division of Marijuana Enforcement, including a licensing structure.
  • Taxes would be collected on recreational marijuana products, initially at the rate of 7% but that rate would increase over 5 years’ time and eventually be taxed at 25%.
  • Taxes collected would be deposited in a special fund which would be known as the “Marijuana Control and Regulation Fund”; the funds would be exclusively devoted to the operation of the Division of Marijuana Enforcement and for reimbursement of all additional costs of enforcement incurred by the Department of Law and Public Safety.
  • Taxes would not be levied upon marijuana intended for sale at medical marijuana centers.
  • Any person convicted of marijuana possession can be eligible to present an application for expungement to the Superior Court of New Jersey.
  • It explicitly directs state law enforcement agencies not to cooperate with or provide assistance to the federal government or any agency thereof in enforcing the Controlled Substance Act, except as pursuant to a valid court order.
  • It addresses limitations of the law which states this bill would not exempt a person from a federal law or obstruct the enforcement of a federal law. (Translation: federal law reigns supreme when it comes to marijuana and ultimately overrides this legislation)

Set aside some of the big issues with this particular bill, such as creating another bureaucracy and the exorbitant progressive taxation that comes with it; the most blatant challenge with this, or any state bill that aims to legalize marijuana, is the fact that possession, distribution and/or being under the influence of marijuana is still a federal crime punishable by law.

Our current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made his commitment to enforcing federal drug laws as clear as could be. If New Jersey moves forward to ultimately legalize recreational marijuana and the Trump Justice Department decides to get tough on enforcement, it could cause grave damage to the state.

None of the experts and supporters who attended Monday’s hearing seemed concerned about the federal ramifications of legalization. The focus was often shifted towards monetary gains for the state as well as how legalization would positively affect minority communities.

The language of the bill itself points to a disproportionate application of the law against minorities, specifically blacks, compared to that of whites, when it comes to marijuana arrests and incarcerations. It reads, in part:

e. New Jersey law enforcement officers made over 24,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, more than in the previous 20 years;

f. In 2012, a person was arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey approximately every 22 minutes;

g. Black New Jerseyans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white New Jerseyans, despite similar usage rates;

h. Marijuana possession arrests constituted three out of every five drug arrests in New Jersey in 2012.

i. New Jersey spends approximately $127 million per year on marijuana possession enforcement costs;

Senator Scutari and his allies at the New Jersey chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP made their core concern clear; for them, this is a civil rights issue and this bill is aimed at address systemic injustice within the justice system.

Other supporters who spoke at the hearing focused their comments on the proper role of government and medical research.

Longtime Republican and Municipal Prosecutor John-Henry Barr made the case that the state’s war on drugs is an example of a government program that is not working:

I’ve always pointed out that we Republicans are against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on government programs that do not work and are not necessary. The war on marijuana is a government program that does not work and is not necessary.”

Barr went on to say that as a father he does everything he can to discourage his children from doing things that could harm their health but that he does not believe that it is the proper role of the criminal justice system to promote good health:

I don’t want my kids to smoke anything. We should be promoting good health but we need not use the criminal justice system to promote good health. I’m already doing everything I can to discourage drug and alcohol abuse but I do not want the government to get involved in my family legal affairs beyond adding to the discouragement and warning the public about products that are not healthy or dangerous, but legal.”

Founder and Board President of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Dr. David L. Nathan, MD focused on medical outcomes:

“Cannabis is less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, it doesn’t make users violent, and there are no cases of fatal cannabis overdose document..”

Stay tuned, Save Jerseyans.

No vote is planned on the bill at this time but this 5 hour hearing should be considered the beginning of what will inevitably be a fight to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

If you are so inclined, you can listen to the entire hearing here.

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