On Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, the New Jersey Senate’s Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from clergy, health professionals, law enforcement officials and other policy experts about whether to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Toward those ends, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, chair of the committee, introduced S1896 early in the session, but the bill and a companion Assembly bill have languished in committee, blocked by opposition from Gov. Chris Christie.
“There is no question that we need to update our archaic drug laws in this country and the majority of people support regulating, taxing and legalizing marijuana,” Scutari told the Associated Press. Nonetheless, as the New Jersey legislature heads into lame duck session, there seems no likelihood that the law will pass in 2015. Nearly half of New Jersey residents reportedly favor legalization, and Christie is “not going to be the governor forever,” Scutari noted. The hearing may best be understood as an effort to build groundswell for a 2016 push.
The bill would legalize possession and personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana. It would also permit the cultivation and retail sale of marijuana by validly licensed businesses under regulations to be adopted by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage and Marijuana Control.
Seventy percent of tax revenues would be directed to the cash-strapped Transportation Trust Fund Account, 20 percent to the Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund and 10 percent to programs addressing women’s health, family planning, postpartum depression awareness, smoking cessation, and HIV-awareness. Advocates see legalization creating a $1 billion industry, from retail operations to agriculture employment, and argue that the state would be irresponsible not to consider it.
Scutari has also cited a report by the American Civil Liberties Union that found New Jersey spent $127.3 million on racially biased marijuana law enforcement in 2010, funds that would presumably be directed toward other public purposes were adult use legalized.
But difficulties in the implementation of New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, of which Scutari was also a prime sponsor, do not bode well for the immediate future. Implementation of the law, signed in 2010, has been slow. Editorial boards have regularly called out the dysfunction of the program. Only five out of the six treatment centers authorized by the law are operational. The fifth opened just in October, four and a half years after it was licensed by the health department. The sixth is still in the background check phase of the process.
Approximately 5,500 patients and 350 caregivers are registered, despite estimates that the patient pool might range into the tens of thousands. Christie has attributed this to a lack of demand for medical marijuana, though others cite the physician registration requirements, the $200 registration fee, a restrictive list of conditions and poor quality of product.
Christie is, of course, campaigning for president and has made no secret that he would reverse course on current federal enforcement inaction in states that have legalized marijuana. As he told a town hall in New Hampshire,
I believe it should still be illegal and if I were president—I said this last night in Keene—If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it until January of 2017 because I will enforce the federal law against marijuana as president of the United States.
In the early run-up to November 2016, that seems unlikely. According to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll from Oct. 15, 2015, only 5 percent of Republican voters name Christie as their choice with 67 percent believing that he should end his candidacy. Not everyone wants him back home in New Jersey to finish the last two years of his term as governor, either. In August, his in-state approval rating had fallen to a record low.
The effect of national Republican jockeying for the presidential nomination may be too tangential to link to the fate of adult-use legalization of marijuana in New Jersey. But many believe that the momentum for legalization has spread from the far West to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. With recreational legalization likely on the 2016 ballot in Maine and Massachusetts and legislative action possible in Rhode Island, Christie’s fade may open the way for adult use in New Jersey.