February 28, 2018

Local Experts Seek to “Weed Out the Truth” In Forums on Marijuana Legalization in N.J.

“WEEDING OUT THE TRUTH”: A panel of experts at Rider University last week discussed the impact of marijuana legalization in New Jersey. From left, Grace Hanlon, director of New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (RAMP); Cathleen Lewis, former mayor of Lawrenceville; Diane Litterer, CEO and executive director of New Jersey Prevention Network (NJPN); Stephen D. Reid, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach; and Robert Czepiel, supervising New Jersey deputy attorney general.

By Donald Gilpin

Bills to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have been introduced in the state Assembly and the state Senate. Legalizing marijuana was part of Governor Phil Murphy’s campaign platform, and he continues to support the cause, citing social justice concerns and a racial disparity in marijuana arrests and prison sentences. But the heated debate over cannabis legalization in New Jersey continues.

Reed Gusciora’s (D-Mercer) Assembly bill and Nicholas Scutari’s (D-Union) Senate bill would both allow personal use of marijuana for people at least 21 years old; create a state agency for regulatory purposes; set up a commercial market of growers and sellers; impose a state tax on marijuana; and allow people who have been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes to have their records cleared.

There is opposition, however, in the state Legislature among Republicans and some Democrats too. According to a Fairleigh Dickinson poll conducted in late January, 42 percent of those polled believe New Jersey should legalize marijuana for recreational use, 27 percent support restricting its sale to medical use, and 26 percent say it should be decriminalized, treated like a civil traffic infraction rather than a crime.

Nine states so far, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational marijuana, making it legally available to about 70 million people nationwide.

Seeking a “balance among marijuana legalization efforts with particular focus on safety concerns, legal versus illegal use, marketing and its effect on children, and taxation effects,” a forum at Rider University last week, “Weeding Out the Truth,” featured five speakers with a range of different perspectives on the impact of marijuana legalization in New Jersey.

This Thursday, March 1, in the Princeton Public Library (PPL) from 7 to 8:30 p.m., New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUFMR), a coalition of social justice organizations, is sponsoring “Beyond the Bias,” a panel on marijuana legalization for adults 21 and older as a racial justice issue, with a focus on the public health and public safety reasons to legalize.

Speakers at last Thursday’s forum at Rider, from a variety of governmental and non-governmental positions, ranged in their perspectives from anti-legalization of recreational marijuana to resigned acceptance of legalization with stern warnings of the necessity for the state to prepare for the consequences.

Cathleen Lewis, former Lawrenceville mayor and former director of public and governmental affairs for AAA Northeast, focused on the dangers of substance-impaired driving, particularly with a combination of alcohol and marijuana use. “My biggest concern is how do we keep them off the roads,” she said.

Acknowledging that the majority of the country is trending towards legalization, Lewis warned that further studies and discussion are essential. “If we go down the legislation path, how do we keep it safe?” she asked the audience of about 80. “We need to do a better job of having this conversation. Marijuana use should be studied for a lot longer before we release it on the public.”

Lewis, the mother of two girls ages 4 and 7, pointed out an abundance of misinformation on marijuana, including lack of data, dearth of research, lack of awareness of the differences between what she called federal marijuana and the much stronger street marijuana, and the difficulties for law enforcement personnel in measuring impairment from THC.

She cited the need for better testing and more certified drug research experts. “It’s clear that people get on the road under the influence of marijuana,” she said. “What can we do?”

Stephen Reid, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, had an answer for his town. The Point Pleasant borough council has already banned marijuana sales. “We didn’t want dispensaries in town,” he said. “Who wants when you go downtown to have people out there smoking marijuana? We were the first and others are following us. We’re trying to do everything we can to be family-friendly.”

Grace Hanlon, director of New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (RAMP), noted, “This is not about medical marijauna. We are 100 percent behind that. This is about recreational marijuana,” as she warned of the consequences “once we let that genie out of the bottle.”

Hanlon stated that Murphy wanted to legalize weed in his first 90 days in office, but that legislators and the localities are pushing back. “They don’t want marijuana in their towns,” she said.

“We have to think carefully about the impact on tourism,” added Hanlon, the former executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism. “People do not want to be bamboozled by an industry that’s trying to get rich at their expense.” Hanlon went on to point out negative consequences of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State over the past several years.

Describing the push to legalize marijuana as an attack on public health, New Jersey Prevention Network (NJPN) CEO and Executive Director Diane Litterer said, “I hope we care more about our children than our tax revenues. We don’t want people to get arrested, but that doesn’t mean we want to start an industry.”

Litterer warned that marijuana can be addictive and that legalization increases youth access to marijuana, with marijuana usage much higher in states where it has been legalized. She also argued that legalization is no solution to the social justice problem of racial bias, nor is it a solution to fiscal concerns, with the costs of marijuana use far outweighing the tax revenues.

Noting that it will be his office’s responsibility to figure out how to implement whatever bill emerges from Trenton, Robert Czepiel, supervising deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey, with over 22 years experience as a prosecutor, expressed his concern about unintended consequences of marijuana legalization, in particular the need to deal with drivers under the influence.

This Thursday night’s session at the PPL will feature David Nathan, founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation; Dianna Houenou, policy counsel of the New Jersey ACLU; and Dominick Bucci, retired New Jersey State Police officer and member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).

Topics on the agenda include racial inequity in enforcement of marijuana laws, underage use and the opioid epidemic, allocation of revenue to compensate communities for past harm, public safety impacts of criminalization, and more.