April 18, 2018

Community Members Hear “The Dope On Marijuana Legalization”

By Donald Gilpin

Two expert panelists in favor of legalization of marijuana in New Jersey and two opposed presented “The Dope on Marijuana Legalization,” an information and discussion session hosted by the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) on Sunday, April 15 at the Suzanne Patterson Center.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, sponsor of a current bill in the State Assembly for legalization; and David Nathan, Princeton psychiatrist, educator and founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, spoke first, presenting their perspectives and cases for legalization of recreational marijuana.

Rory Wells, former Ocean County prosecutor and current advisor to New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJRAMP), and Diane Litterer, CEO and executive director of The New Jersey Prevention Network (NJPN), followed with reasons why recreational marijuana should not be legalized in New Jersey.

Bills to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have been introduced in the state Assembly, including Gusciora’s latest proposal, and the state Senate, and Governor Murphy continues to support the cause. But opinions are divided in the legislature and in the state at large.

PCDO President Jean Durbin reported that an informal audience poll at Sunday’s gathering revealed 75 percent in favor of legalization, 20 percent opposed, and 5 percent undecided. Nine states so far, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational marijuana.

Emphasizing social justice concerns and the racial disparity in marijuana arrests, Gusciora, an attorney currently running for mayor of the city of Trenton, described his bill. It would legalize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for persons age 21 and over and would create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement and a licensing structure.

“I don’t recommend anyone to take marijuana, but if you do you shouldn’t be subject to criminal laws,” Gusciora said. Advocating a “common sense, realistic” approach to the problem, he noted that his bill “largely aligns with Governor Murphy.”

Gusciora claimed that marijuana is no worse than alcohol, but he stated that the prosecution of cannabis offenses takes an extreme toll on society and policing.

Nathan argued, “For public health and social justice reasons marijuana needs to be legalized in the United States,” but he went on to emphasize the importance of “above all effective regulation. You can’t have regulation without legalization.”

He added, “The punishment for marijuana has always been far worse than the harm done by the drug itself. That is inexcusable in a free society like ours.”

Nathan cited 22,000 to 24,000 arrests per year for marijuana possession in New Jersey, with African Americans arrested at a rate of 3:1 over whites. “That is a horrendous, racist disparity in enforcement of the law,” Nathan said.

Wells, however, claimed that “with objective facts, the people will reject legalization of recreational marijuana.” He went on to say that legalization would bring offsetting costs in law enforcement, health, drunk driving, youth usage, and treatment for addiction. “I believe these offsetting costs are much higher than the revenues we will take in,” he added.

Arguing that legalization would increase drug use, Wells, an African American, argued, “I can appreciate the disproportionate arrest problem, but I do not believe legalization is the answer.”

Wells stated that the data from Colorado, Washington and other states where marijuana has been legalized has not been positive and that New Jersey needs to wait for “five, six or seven years before doing this.”

Litterer, who has been in the field of public health for over 30 years and manages several statewide initiatives focused on prevention and treatment, agreed with Wells on the value of waiting to study the long-term consequences in states where marijuana has been legalized.

She warned about the health risks of potent forms of marijuana. “My concern is any law that is going to provide more availability to a substance that negatively impacts our youth,” she said, and she questioned why any law should make legal at age 21 a substance that affects the brain as it continues to develop to age 25.

Litterer also warned against the creation of “a profit-driven industry that is selling a product that affects adults’ behavior and brains and children’s brain development.” Comparing a possible future marijuana industry to the tobacco and alcohol industries, she stated, “They will target youth.”

The panelists were in agreement in support of medical marijuana with careful regulation. They were also in agreement that marijuana should not be accessible to minors, at least to age 21. Beyond that, the debate over legalization and regulation continues in Princeton, Trenton, and throughout the country.