On marijuana, key N.J. lawmaker introduces bill to make state more like Colorado

New Jersey state Sen. Nicholas Scutari examines cannabis products at a dispensary in Denver during a visit to Colorado in October. He calls the war on drugs "misguided."

A bill to legalize recreational marijuana in the Garden State was off and running Monday, but might be stalled not only by opponents of legalization, including Gov. Christie,  but by supporters of it as well, angry with this proposal. 

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), who led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to Colorado  to see how legalization works last fall, conceded that his 62-page bill would not have a chance to become law until Christie’s term ends in January. 

Christie, a Republican, calls marijuana a gateway drug and says he will veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.  Scutari, a municipal prosecutor, said he wants to get the bill on the table so he can “educate lawmakers” and win support. 

“We want it to be ready for the next governor,” Scutari said during a news conference in Trenton.  The Democratic front-runners in the primary race for governor favor legalization, while the Republican candidates appear open to decriminalization. 

But after Scutari spoke, Roseanne Scotti,  senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, blasted the long-anticipated proposal.  “It’s a bad bill,” she said.  “It seems very skewed to the marijuana industry, people who come in and get licenses and make more money, and that’s not right.” 

For example, the bill would not allow home cultivation of marijuana plants, which would make cannabis more accessible to people who cannot afford the high prices charged by medical marijuana dispensaries, she said.  It also does not direct that taxes on marijuana sales go toward helping struggling communities that are most affected by the “failed war on drugs,” she said. 

Finally, Scotti said, the bill is flawed because it does not call for the criminal records of people arrested on marijuana charges in the past to be automatically expunged. 

Scotti said African Americans were disproportionately arrested on such charges by a 3-1 ratio, and said many lives were ruined by the charges and criminal records.

Scutari, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he is open to changes and is trying to build a consensus on how the tax revenue should be used. 

The reason he omitted home growing – which Colorado permits -  is that it has caused some problems for regulators and led to marijuana's being sold on the black market, he said. 

“People are supposed to grow only six plants, but maybe they grow eight,” he said.  “It’s not a problem we want to take on when we are taking on a new industry.”

Scutari said legalization is “the right thing to do for all New Jersey citizens.”  The “war on drugs,” he said, turns people who use marijuana into criminals even though the drug is similar to alcohol and is not addictive.  He also said it is wrong to consider marijuana possession criminal while prescribed opiates, which are highly addictive and dangerous, are legal.

Eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.  Colorado was the first.  Last week, Vermont lawmakers voted to join those states and the measure is awaiting the governor's decision.

The Obama administration had said it would not prosecute residents in states that have legalized marijuana. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Republican, recently said he considers possession of the drug to be illegal.  He also called it a gateway drug that leads to addiction. 

Congress, however, did not provide money in the budget for federal enforcement in those states.

Scutari’s bill would allow those 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis, or 16 ounces of infused solid products, such as edibles, or 72 ounces in liquid form or seven grams of concentrate. 

Scutari said he would request hearings on the bill this year.

Under the bill, taxes on marijuana sales would start at 7 percent and rise to 25 percent over five years.  Although other states have started their programs by imposing large taxes, Scutari said he wanted to give a new industry a chance to compete with the illegal drug market by allowing the prices to start low. Scutari said he expected legalization will "generate hundreds of millions of dollars in direct tax revenue."

The bill would allow the state’s five medical marijuana dispensaries to immediately apply for retail recreational licenses. 

Scutari said the tax revenues were not designated for any public purpose, but he said that could change as the bill goes through negotiation and debate. 

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