March 12, 2019: Governor Phil Murphy made cannabis legalization a part of his campaign platform, and after more than a year of negotiations, he's close to fulfilling his campaign pledge. Per media reports, he came to an agreement with top state lawmakers late Monday on the makeup of a legalization bill, and a vote on the issue could come as early as this month. The next voting sessions in both the Senate and Assembly take place on March 25, and a bill may be introduced in both houses if it appears there are enough votes to pass it.
"Legalizing adult-use marijuana is a monumental step to reducing disparities in our criminal justice system," said Gov. Murphy in a statement. "I believe that this legislation will establish an industry that brings fairness and economic opportunity to all of our communities, while promoting public safety by ensuring a safe product and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes." (Editor's note: Legalization did not happen as of April 2019.)
What's Past Is Prologue
New Jersey might make history as the first state to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature. On November 8, 2017, gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy easily whupped Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno to take the top executive position in the state. Murphy, a former diplomat, supports full legalization, calling it "a social justice issue." In his speech after winning the party primary in June, Murphy said, "The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana. And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just."
Per NJ.com, "Electing Democrat Phil Murphy means New Jersey would soon join eight other states in legalizing marijuana for people 21 and older and creating what is predicted to be a multibillion-dollar industry. He's promised to sign a legalization bill into law within the first 100 days of his term. Democrats who control the state Legislature appear willing."
Murphy will follow Chris Christie, one of the world's most ardent prohibitionists, which shows just how far the Garden State has evolved on the issue.
In 2010, New Jersey passed the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, allowing those with certain conditions to access medical marijuana (MMJ) for the first time. It would be two years before the first dispensary opened. Six years later, there were only five dispensaries throughout the state that served roughly 5,600 patients, a fraction of the estimated number of those who needed access to MMJ. Due in part to strict requirements and exorbitantly high prices, patients found it difficult to go through the necessary steps to enroll in the state’s MMJ program.
"The program is so artificially restrictive,” said Ken Wolski, leader of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey. “The vast majority of people who can benefit from medical marijuana therapy can't access it in New Jersey.... Anybody who’s been impoverished by their illness or marginally employed, they can't afford this program. It's a shell of what it could have been."
Surprising to many, Americans for Safe Access gave New Jersey a higher than expected C grade in its 2017 report. This was partly due to Governor Christie signing bill A4587, which required schools and some other facilities to administer MMJ to children who have been approved by at least two doctors, making it the first state to allow cannabis to be administered in schools.Christie, however, is adamantly anti-cannabis, saying he never would have signed the MMJ bill handed down to him by his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine. While on his ill-fated presidential campaign, Christie stated that he views cannabis as a “gateway” drug that is harmful to children, and that if elected president, he would crack down on states that have already legalized recreational cannabis.
“As a former federal prosecutor, I’ve been the most outspoken person... on this issue. I am completely, 100 percent opposed to drug legalization; that’s different than being for treatment,” Christie told Laura Ingraham in a recent interview.
Arrests for cannabis possession under Christie were the highest they’ve been in 20 years, at nearly 25,000 arrests.
"Christie is the most vocal marijuana prohibitionist in America right now,” said Christ Goldstein, board member of Philly NORML. “His rhetoric obviously hasn't been lost on the police captains of New Jersey."
Several lawmakers fought against Christie's prohibitionist platform, including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who argued, "We’re making criminals out of a lot of young people for simple possession of marijuana. The punishment really does not fit the crime."
"A journey of a thousand steps starts with the first," added state senator Nicholas Scutari in a public hearing discussing legalization. "The first step was introducing the bill, and this is the natural next step—to talk about the benefits of legalization and the negative impact prohibition has had."
One such negative impact has been the disproportionate arrest rates of African-Americans, who are almost three times more likely to be arrested for possession than caucasians even though cannabis use is nearly the same, according to a 2013 ACLU study.
"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 said, citing the nearly 58 percent of New Jerseyans who support legalization for adults, according to a 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll.
Had Guadagno won the governorship, prohibition would have remained strong in Jersey, but she ultimately lost by around 13 points. If Murphy keeps his promise, Jersey might be the next state to legalize cannabis.
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