Lawmaker behind medical marijuana wants N.J. to permit recreational use

TRENTON A prime author of New Jersey's medical marijuana law wants the state now to emulate Colorado and legalize the recreational use of pot by adults.

Citing the windfall Colorado is enjoying from marijuana sales, State Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union) announced Monday that he had drafted a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use and hoped to get it assigned to a committee as soon as possible and then posted for a vote.

New York and Rhode Island have similar bills in legislative committees.

Scutari acknowledged that Gov. Christie may refuse to sign it, especially since the Republican governor recently told a town-hall meeting he would never support such a measure.

"He's not going to be the governor forever," Scutari told a throng of reporters at a news conference Monday. "The governor is a man of facts. . . . I think he'll be open minded to consider it" once he understands the benefits, Scutari said.

The senator estimates the state could realize more than $100 million in annual revenues by taxing marijuana and could save another $100 million that is now spent enforcing marijuana laws and prosecuting people for possessing marijuana.

The lawmaker said 70 percent of this money could be targeted to fixing bridges, building roads, and improving other deteriorating infrastructure. The rest, he said could be used for drug-education efforts and treatment, and for women's health programs.

Scutari, a Linden prosecutor, said legalization also would decrease crime the same way that lifting the prohibition against alcohol sales decades ago killed the black market.

He said there is "no evidence" that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol. "No one has ever died from using marijuana," he said. "Our residents are being locked up and carrying permanent criminal records because of arrests from marijuana crimes."

Earlier this year, Colorado became the first state to allow retail pot sales after voters gave their approval. After a remarkable opening and far greater sales than originally anticipated, Colorado officials are projecting tax revenues of more than $107 million this year.

Washington is expected to become the second state after it completes the approval of dispensaries.

Scutari, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his bill would allow New Jersey residents to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana at a licensed outlet and to grow up to six marijuana plants in an enclosed private area.

Users would be barred from smoking marijuana in public places and from driving while impaired. Towns could regulate, tax, or even ban the sale of marijuana, he said.

"This is a journey of a thousand steps," Scutari said, explaining that his 20-page bill is just the first step in getting legalization. Scutari, a primary sponsor of the medical marijuana bill that was adopted in 2010, has said that measure took five years before it was signed into law.

At a town hall in Flemington last week, Christie said that he would not decriminalize, legalize, or permit marijuana for recreational use. Doing so would be the "wrong message to send to children" and young adults, he said. Christie said he would not permit the "state-sanctioned use of marijuana for people who do not have a legitimate need for it."

Jay Lassiter, a licensed medical marijuana user from Cherry Hill who attended Scutari's news conference, said cannabis can alleviate ailments but can also be used responsibly by adults, the same way as alcohol and tobacco.

A board member of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-N.J., Lassiter said that the best way to prevent children from consuming drugs is through education and through honesty, rather than promoting "myth-based arguments" that falsely paint marijuana as harmful to everyone. "I'm happy to begin the debate. . . . This is a long-overdue discussion," he said.

A companion bill to Scutari's is expected to be introduced by Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D., Union) in the other legislative chamber.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), meanwhile, introduced a bill earlier this month that would put the issue before voters. He said Christie was receptive to asking voters to decide on gay marriage last year and may agree to sign off on a referendum on marijuana legalization.

Lawmakers in several New England states are also considering asking voters to weigh in.

Scutari said that he hoped to get the bill to the floor of the Senate as soon as possible but that he had no clear idea of when that may be. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has said he would consider the bill but it is not a priority for him.

856-779-3224 @JanHefler