DENVER - For Nick Scutari, shepherding fellow New Jersey lawmakers on a tour through a marijuana cultivation center and several dispensaries in Colorado this week was serious business, never mind the endless stream of jokes among the group about pot.
No, the state senator wasn't tempted to try cannabis for the first time, despite the wide array of legal and enticing cannabis cookies, chocolates, lotions, and buds. But he acknowledged he might change his mind if it becomes legal in the Garden State - possibly as early as 2018, when Gov. Christie, an opponent of legalization, is no longer in office.
Scutari, a Democrat from Union County and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he did not want to be hypocritical or lose credibility while fighting for legalization, one of his passions.
In an interview following the four-day fact-finding trip he took with four other Democratic and three Republican legislators, he suggested he might review the nearly 100-page legalization bill he previously drafted and cross out a few things while on the plane heading home Wednesday.
"We're getting this done," said Scutari, who will hold a Statehouse news conference Thursday to announce his findings and his renewed push for legalization.
"I think this is one of the most important things we can do in this century, just as ending alcohol prohibition was," Scutari said Wednesday. The decades-old prohibition of cannabis has fueled crime and a black market and has "ruined neighborhoods, ruined lives, and has been an utter failure," he said.
Scutari said many young people across the United States, and a disproportionate number of minorities, have been arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana, which then changed "the trajectory of their lives" because it gave them a criminal record.
But Henny Lasley, executive director of Smart Colorado, a group that aims to "protect the youth of Colorado" from marijuana use, said the welfare of teens and children was overlooked when legalization there was approved in 2012. Marijuana and marijuana-based products have been available for sale to adults since 2014, bringing in more than $135 million in tax revenues last year from the $1 billion a year industry.
"We don't take issue with adult use - adults are adults - but we have issues when [cannabis] lollipops are available in the marketplace," Lasley said. "We want to raise awareness of what's out there and want other states to know what they are voting for and what they're getting, if they vote to legalize."
A report issued by the nonprofit this month, "Lessons Learned From Colorado's Marijuana Experiment," says the state's youths are vulnerable to Colorado's marijuana industry, which had 424 retail dispensaries as of January.
The report says Colorado "ranks first in the nation for past-month marijuana use by those 12-17 years old" and cites federal "National Surveys on Drug Use and Health data released in December."
But Colorado officials, lawmakers, and others who spoke to the New Jersey delegation during the trip said that the state had ranked first before legalization and that the increase in teen use was statistically insignificant.
Scutari said the reports and information provided by critics of legalization are distorted. "There are absolutely no statistics that show an increase in teen use," he said. "Just as we do with alcohol, we shouldn't let children eat or smoke marijuana."
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican from Monmouth County, said that before he left for the trip, he received a big packet of information from a group opposed to legalization. "The evidence I've seen so far definitely weighs heavily in favor of legalization, but I am still asking questions about the negative information out there," he said. "It seems the arguments against it require a heavy dose of statistical acrobatics."
O'Scanlon said he had not yet decided whether to support legalization but is leaning that way.
As for keeping cannabis away from children, whose developing brains can be harmed, the lawmakers said they were impressed with the childproof packaging that Colorado is now requiring. A new regulation mandates that the symbol of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, be stamped on every serving of marijuana - including each of the small squares that make up a cannabis chocolate bar.
Scutari said one lesson he learned from the trip is that overregulation can be detrimental. For example, requiring cannabis businesses to separately track and label plants depending on whether they are sold as medical or recreational marijuana - even though the plants are the same - causes costly duplication and a burden, especially on small cannabis businesses, he said.
Scutari sponsored New Jersey's medical marijuana bill, which passed in 2010. Christie, who sees marijuana as a gateway drug, had regulators create stringent rules that many patients and dispensary operators blame for a stifled cannabis industry in New Jersey. Christie has said he wanted to keep people who were not truly sick from getting cannabis, but many patients say he went too far.
Pennsylvania approved the use of medical marijuana in the spring and plans to implement the program by 2018.
A record 60 percent of American adults support legalization of marijuana, according to a new Gallup poll released Wednesday. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. Residents in five other states will decide on Nov. 8.
According to the Associated Press, when Gallup first asked about this issue in 1969, 12 percent of Americans supported legalization. By 2000, support had increased to 31 percent and has continued climbing since then, reaching 58 percent last year.
Scutari said another problem he learned about in Colorado was the power that towns there have to repeal legalization within their borders. He said this has wreaked havoc with the industry, which can be shut down by a vote after a start-up business comes to the community. "I think towns should have some control but I haven't yet figured out how much," he said. "We need a balance."
As for the $500 million in annual tax revenue Scutari expects the cannabis industry to generate in New Jersey, he said there is a lot to consider when deciding what to do with the influx of money. He said it could go to education and drug-abuse prevention, as in Colorado, or to myriad other needs.
"This will be an economic engine for the state," he said. "But where the tax money will go is something that will be open to discussion."