March 7, 2018

Health, Policy, Public Safety Experts Urge Cannabis Legalization

By Donald Gilpin

A psychiatrist, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer, and a retired New Jersey state trooper presented the case for legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana to end the negative effects caused by current laws, in “Beyond the Bias,” a forum sponsored by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) at the Princeton Public Library last Thursday evening.

“It’s a civil liberties issue,” ACLU Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou said. “We’re in the midst of a civil rights crisis.” Citing nearly 25,000 arrests for marijauna possession in New Jersey each year, with African Americans arrested at a rate three times higher than whites, Houenou argued for “reform with racial and social justice at the heart of it.”

Retired police lieutenant Nick Bucci, who spent 25 years confronting drug criminals at all levels before leaving the force in 1991, has been working to end drug prohibition. Claiming to have seen the injustices and ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system, he now represents the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), “my way of paying back to the people of New Jersey for the injustice that I caused all those years.”

From the medical and education perspective, Princeton psychiatrist David Nathan, founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, affirmed his “oath to serve public health” and his “oath not to let go problems in society that worsen the poverty of the impoverished, and that is why I’m here. I’ve seen so many more lives ruined from marijuana arrests than from marijuana itself.”

Nathan emphasized the importance of regulation and keeping marijuana away from minors. “There is no safe age at which kids can use marijuana, not until the early 20s. There is no quantity they can consume that is safe, and the younger they are the worse it is, the more chance it is going to have a negative effect on motivation and also on cognition, and those can be long-term effects.”

He went on to point out that effective regulation is crucial to bringing the problem under control. “You can’t have regulation without legalization. If you’re going to legalize it you’d better regulate it properly. Test it. Make sure people know what they’re getting. By regulating we’ll bring the market under control and protect New Jersey citizens.”

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, but the debate over cannabis legalization in New Jersey continues, with opinions divided in the legislature and in the state at large.

The most recent Fairleigh Dickinson poll showed 42 percent of New Jerseyans favoring legalization for recreational use; an additional 26 percent saying it should be decriminalized, treated like a civil traffic infraction rather than a crime; and 27 percent supporting restricting the sale to medical use.

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

All three speakers pointed out failures in the way young people are educated about marijuana use. “We’ve done a poor job of being honest with our kids about what behaviors they should be engaging in and why,” Houenou said. “We’ve resorted to the ‘just-say-no’ tagline and that’s it. We need to be honest with our kids about why they shouldn’t use cannabis. We can legalize and tell our kids why they shouldn’t use cannabis.”

Asserting that this is essentially a public health question, Nathan added,” If we want our kids to listen, we have to give them a realistic education, more fact-based reasons for why marijuana is harmful to them. The moral approach has not worked. We treat it as if it is somehow a moral issue. It’s not a moral issue, and it shouldn’t be a criminal issue. It’s a medical issue and kids will listen to us if we tell them that.”

The discussion, followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Rabbi Justus Baird, a Princeton resident and dean of Auburn Theological Seminary. There were about 80 people in the audience.