If you’re not interested in legalizing recreational marijuana, New Jersey state senator Nicholas Scutari is not interested in hearing from you. Earlier this month, Scutari held a hearing that allowed only supporters of legalizing recreational weed to testify. Opponents of Scutari’s bill to end the state’s cannabis prohibition, which he introduced eighteen months ago, will have their turn to testify at a future hearing.
Among those who testified at the hearing were speakers from the New Jersey chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as Lieutenant Nick Bucci, a retired state policeman, and J.H. Barr, a prosecutor and the president of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association.
The hearing on legalizing marijuana sent a strong message to the movement, says Evan Nison, executive director of NORML New Jersey and co-founder of the New York Cannabis Alliance. “It’s a race — whoever legalizes first is going to get a lot more customers,” Nison tells the Voice. “If all of Manhattan has to go to Bergen County to buy cannabis legally, that’s awesome. It’s a race for revenue. I think that will definitely motivate other states to legalize.”
Nonetheless, Nison says that current New Jersey law clings to antiquated ideas about weed: that marijuana is a gateway drug, that it’s more dangerous than alcohol, that it leads to the commission of other crime. “New Jersey erodes its residents’ respect for the law and criminalizes over 24,000 otherwise law-abiding citizens a year,” he says. He adds that these arrests disproportionately target black and Latino residents. In 2010 alone, enforcing marijuana laws cost the state almost $130 million, according to NORML New Jersey. By comparison, New York City alone spends $75 million a year on marijuana possession arrests.
States that continue to criminalize marijuana are also missing out on a windfall of tax dollars, Nison says, using Colorado as an example: During the first year of its recreational marijuana program, which went into effect in 2014, the state government generated $82 million in taxes from marijuana; it is expected to generate $125 million in 2015. “Moving the sale of marijuana into a regulated system also both created legitimate jobs and appears to have either reduced or maintained the status quo of teen use in both Colorado and Washington [State],” Nison says.
Politicians still have yet to come around to the notion that marijuana prohibition has had a negative impact on law enforcement and society in general, says Jeff Kaufman, a former NYPD officer who now teaches high school in Far Rockaway. “There’s still a large amount of police resources devoted to this purported drug war that we have no chance of winning or making any dent in,” says Kaufman, who is a frequent speaker for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). “It totally alienates police officers from their communities.” He suspects that if polled, large numbers of NYPD officers would make clear their recognition that the current drug laws are diverting them from the real purpose of their job. “[Prohibition is] not only inappropriate but also destructive,” Kaufman says. “It reinforces racial stereotypes.”
While no action has been taken on Scutari’s bill thus far, Nison says that New Jersey still may be ahead of New York in the race to legalize. “Both houses [in New Jersey] are Democratic and the leadership is supportive here,” he says. Unlike New York, which has a fairly conservative Senate, in Jersey, the only impediment right now is Governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor and attorney general who is vehemently against legalizing cannabis. But even with that opposition, legalizing adult-use cannabis is a bigger, more immediate conversation in Jersey than it currently is in New York.