In an effort to help potentially generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, as well as save millions in law enforcement costs, New Jersey Senator Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat, claimed Monday to have found the answer to many of the state’s fiscal problems — a little green plant called “marijuana.”
“The drug laws in this country prohibiting the use and possession of marijuana have failed miserably,” Scutari said in a press release.
Citing similar legislation in Colorado and Washington, Scutari’s proposed legislation would allow for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana in New Jersey, making it available for purchase and consumption by adults 21 and older.
Chris Goldstein, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told VICE News that the tax potential is excellent. Colorado brought in $2 million in revenue in January — the first month following legalization.
“One of the most important things we can do is actually tax and regulate the product, and start bringing in that tax revenue from an actual, regulated market,” Goldstein said. “Now, Colorado has a population of around five million, and New Jersey has a population of nearly nine million. We’ve seen the tax revenue start to roll in in Colorado, and because of New Jersey’s greater population, we could expect to see even more revenue here.”
According to Scutari’s statement, the bill itself outlines the creation of a recreational marijuana program, allowing personal possession of up to one ounce of the drug. The bill also allows citizens to grow up to six marijuana plants, provided they be kept in a locked, enclosed place, and are not made available for sale.
'The medical marijuana program has been sabotaged by the Christie administration so we’re waiting for the next governor.'
Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said this kind of legislation bodes well for citizens in a state where the medical marijuana arrangements are shoddy, at best.
“We feel the medicinal marijuana program is really not functioning properly, and our organization has come to endorse the legalization of marijuana as the most effective way to meet the needs of the majority of the patients in New Jersey,” Wolski told VICE News.
Goldstein noted that New Jersey was the first state to pass a medical marijuana law that had no provisions for patients to grow their own marijuana, forcing people to utilize dispensaries that, quite frankly, never opened.
He blames the Christie administration.
“The medical marijuana bill that passed in 2010 has been a complete failure because of the Christie administration. There were supposed to be six alternative treatment centers [or dispensaries], but only one is operating.”
Derek Peterson, co-owner of the horticulture equipment company Terra Tech, told MainStreet.com that there are currently three medical marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey but only one is operational.
“The medical marijuana program has been sabotaged by the Christie administration so we’re waiting for the next governor,” Peterson said.
Goldstein agrees. “We’ve only registered 1,500 patients in almost four years of the program, whereas Arizona, which passed their bill far after New Jersey, has tens of thousands of registered patients,” he said.
Governor Christie has held his ground throughout his tenure and vowed last week that marijuana law will not change while he is in office.
“I will not decriminalize marijuana,” Christie said at a town hall meeting on March 20. “I will not permit recreational use… because I think that is sending the wrong message to the children in this state and to young adults.”
But this issue reaches far beyond party lines.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican, regarded by many as one of the most conservative among New Jersey’s legislators, told VICE News he’s all for marijuana decriminalization and legalization.
“You’re talking to the world’s straightest arrow,” said Carroll, who in 1998 proposed a resolution to rename the Town of Clinton to the Town of Reagan. “I’ve never smoked a joint, never done a line, never popped a pill — I don’t even drink. So, to me, it’s really philosophical. I just don’t see that society prospers from trying to regulate, or more to the point criminalize, this plant.”
The process of enforcing these drug laws is expensive and costly in more ways than one, Carroll said.
“You ruin numerous lives,” Carroll told VICE News. “How many cops do you have to hire? How many jails do we have to build? How many prosecutors do we have to hire? How many judges do we have to hire? All to handle this. Why? How is society benefitted?”
A June 2013 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) supports Carroll’s claims.
The study noted that in 2010, New Jersey was the top eighth state (including the District of Columbia) in per capita fiscal expenditure on enforcing marijuana law. To get there, New Jersey law enforcement agencies arrested nearly 22,000 people just on marijuana possession charges. The report estimates that the state had a "middle" expenditure figure of $127 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010, but could have spent up to $213 million.
None of this takes into account the clear racial disparities involved in marijuana law enforcement. According to a separate ACLU report, also released in June last year, black New Jerseyans are a whopping 2.84 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparative usage rates.
“The most important part about a legalization bill is that we’re going to stop 22,000 arrests each year in New Jersey for marijuana possession,” Goldstein said. “And we’ve seen a really harsh racial disparity toward those arrests across the state. Places like Hunterdon County, which trends very white, is still arresting more black people for marijuana possession.”
Unfortunately for Scutari and the state’s marijuana advocates, the odds of this bill being passed are just about slim to none. Even if they do make it through the senate and assembly, Christie is sure to veto them. The only chance the bill will have is if the legislature decides to override the veto with a vote of at least two-thirds of the members of each house — which is about as likely as Christie sitting down and discussing this with us over a big fat bowl and a pizza or two.
Follow Maxwell Barna on Twitter: @Maxwell_BarnaNJ