TRENTON - Fresh from a fact-finding expedition to see Colorado's marijuana industry, none of the eight New Jersey lawmakers who went had a negative word about pot legalization for reporters at a standing-room-only news conference Thursday.
"The sky hasn't fallen," State Sen. Nicolas Scutari (D., Union) said, describing the Denver area as having "neighborhoods you would be proud to represent and to live in."
When the five Democrats and three Republicans were asked whether they had any misgivings about legalization in New Jersey after their three- to four-day tour around Denver, there was silence except for Scutari.
"No," he said simply.
Scutari plans to introduce a bill in the coming weeks to allow the sale of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, which now has only a medical cannabis program. He said legalization could bring in $500 million in tax revenue and create thousands of jobs.
The New Jersey legislators met with officials from the Colorado governor's office, the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division, lawmakers, and experts in the cannabis industry. They toured cultivation, manufacturing, and retail operations.
Colorado was the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana, with its first dispensaries opening in 2014.
Its $1 billion cannabis industry created more than $135 million in tax revenue last year, but that does not include ancillary businesses, Scutari, a municipal prosecutor in Union County, said. Drug arrests have dropped 81 percent, and there has been no increase in marijuana use by teenagers in Colorado, he said.
Among those who took the trip was Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who said legalization would be "a game-changer for the state."
"I am sold on it. It's safe and it can be regulated," he said. Denver, a metropolitan area of two million people, saw an influx of 100,000 people this year, mostly millennials, he said, and has become a center of job creation.
Sweeney, who did not allow Scutari's first legalization bill in 2014 to advance to the floor for a vote, said he plans to move this one forward quickly. But he said Gov. Christie, a legalization opponent, would veto it, so the bill would have to wait until a new governor is seated in January 2018 before it could become law.
Christie has said cannabis is a gateway drug and has mocked Colorado as a state troubled by rampant drug abuse and a marijuana culture.
Phil Murphy, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2017, said at a recent town hall meeting that he would approve such a bill, which would allow marijuana use for adults 21 and over. But he said the decision did not come lightly, since he has four teenage children.
Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden) said he had similar concerns. "I have three children of my own and am part of the generation that was taught to say no to drugs," he said.
Greenwald, of Cherry Hill, had signed on to go to Colorado this week but canceled because of a business meeting.
Still, he appeared at the news conference with the lawmakers who went to Denver, and said he was impressed with the findings and the "diligent, methodical approach" of Scutari as he presses for support in the Legislature. "It's a remarkable start," he said.
Greenwald said he was "not opposed to legalization," but wanted to continue studying the issue. He said he was troubled by heroin addiction among teens and the opioid crisis, and said studies show marijuana may help reduce the problem.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden) said she went on the trip because she is chairwoman of the Women and Children Committee and there's "a lot of concern" about the effect of legalization on children.
She said she was surprised to see "the products look sterile," contrary to reports about colorful cannabis gummy bears getting into the hands of children. After initial problems, she said, new packaging rules went into effect, and cannabis edibles now "look completely different from regular brownies and regular Gummi Bears."
Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R., Burlington) said she joined the group to learn "what are the facts and what isn't true" in Colorado.
Noting the cohesion of the delegation, Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D., Union) said "Republicans and Democrats came together in one small group" and toured the area to see firsthand the effects of the cannabis industry.
"I am inspired to move this bill forward and support it," he said.
When a reporter asked for "a show of hands" to see if any of the eight lawmakers tried marijuana during the trip, no one responded. "That's not what the trip was about," said Scutari, who said he had never used marijuana. "It was about education."
Scutari said one problem he saw in Colorado was the difficulty of regulating homegrown marijuana. By allowing residents to grow their own plants, he said, some marijuana is being sold on the black market. He wants to find ways to better control that aspect of the program.
Scutari also said that he hoped to have his bill passed in 2018 and implemented quickly. "It's not something that happens overnight," he said. When asked if it could take a few years, he said that legalization was overdue and that "we won't let that happen."