Led by State Sen. Ronald Rice, chair of the N.J. Legislative Black Caucus, the hearing included State Senators Sandra Cunningham and Nina Gill, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, and others.
The hearing was to collect information and hear differing points of view.
“I’m familiar with the issue, because Montclair, which I represent, was one of the first communities in the state to provide medical marijuana,” Gill said.
Last year, Democratic candidate Phil Murphy said he supported legalization, something that has been done in a number of other states including Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and recently, California.
But a number of municipalities and counties have announced that they will not allow legalized marijuana, posing serious legal hurdles and complicating the social justice aspect of a proposed bill currently working its way through the state legislature.
While the majority of those who attended to hearing in Jersey City at the Cityline Church appeared to support legalization (many handing out literature or holding informal information sessions on the sidewalk outside), the hearing had a number of opponents, including a former Ocean County prosecutor, a mother whose son had died as direct impact of marijuana use, and a nationally recognized author on the impact of marijuana.
This about social justice, not tax revenues
One of the elements that make legalizing marijuana attractive to legislators is the tax benefit the state might expect. One group estimates it could be as much as $300 million.
Sen. Rice said these hearings were not about finance, but about social justice, and how to address the fact that many people of color are charged and imprisoned for use or possession of marijuana.
He said three times as many people of color are incarcerated for crimes related to marijuana as whites. And these people often face harsh sentences.
According to a fact sheet issued by the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) a pro-legalization lobby, 25,000 arrests are made in New Jersey each year.
Rice said the hearings are an attempt to gather information about whether or not legalizing marijuana will help remedy the situation.
Opponents and proponents – some from as far away as California – offered testimony to the panel on the downside or benefit of legalizing marijuana. At times, one side disputed what the other claimed as fact.
New Jersey has a number of options. It could legalize marijuana, decriminalize it, or do nothing at all and leave the current system in place.
“Decriminalization does not go far enough. Even then it is still a crime and people can still be locked up.” – Virgil Grant
The majority of the audience appeared to support legalization. However, members of Smart Approach to Marijuana (SAM) testified in opposition, citing a number of unresolved issues in what is still largely an unknown landscape, and presented their case as to why the state should delay legalizing marijuana until more is known.
As Rice and others noted, the legal landscape is precarious as best.
Marijuana, for instance, is considered illegal by the federal government, in the same class as heroin, cocaine, and LSD. So if New Jersey was to legalize marijuana, no one living in a federally-subsidized building could legally use the drug in their home.
Marijuana could follow the legal guidelines that govern alcohol use. Public consumption will likely be banned. This would require people to go to bar-like accommodations such as smoke lounges.
Where these or retail sellers of marijuana would be located is also a social issue. Do these get located in primarily poor neighborhoods (mostly populated by people of color) if rejected in more upscale communities?
Rice also noted the legal risk people might face if they are transporting marijuana legally purchased in one community through a community where it is not legal. Would those people be subject to arrest?
Regardless of legalization, it would still be illegal to sell to a minor or be possessed by someone under age (21 most likely). So kids will still likely face arrest and so would adults providing the drug for them.
People using marijuana would be prohibited from obtaining certain jobs such as many government jobs on a federal, state maybe even local level. Currently, people who work with kids as coaches, teachers, and similar jobs are drug tested, and would be banned from those jobs as well. Many companies institute drug tests that could prohibit employment.
Legalizing also raises questions about those already charged and serving time for crimes. Will those currently in jail be released?
Groups like NJUMR said programs are needed to help ex-offenders with expungment, legally removing these charges from a person’s criminal record.
NJUMAR also estimates that New Jersey has wasted more than $1 billion over the last decade on police, courts, and jails enforcing marijuana possession laws.
The group also addresses one of the more serious aspects of the legalized marijuana industry: the preponderance of white-owned marijuana producers, displacing what has largely been a cottage industry for many people of color in the past.
‘King of California Cannabis’
Virgil Grant, who has been called the King of California Cannabis, testified that legalized marijuana can serve as a job generator for people of color, many of whom can become entrepreneurs.
He told the panel that starting pay in his centers is $22.50 an hour.
Grant, according to several accounts, started out as clandestine dealer for rap stars and others, and then moved into legalized sales when California legalized medical marijuana in 1995.
The Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 indicted him on multiple counts of drug conspiracy, money laundering and operating drug-related premises within 1,000 feet of a school. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
In 2016, he co-founded two non-profits related to the production of cannabis in California, which legalized recreational (he calls it “adult use”) in early 2018.
He testified that production and sale of marijuana has the potential to empower people of color and provide jobs.
“Decriminalization does not go far enough,” he said. “Even then it is still a crime and people can still be locked up.”
He is a member of the ACLU, the NAACP, and a member of the California Black Caucus.
He said people of color can go to jail for decades for possession and low level sales. He compared these laws to the 1960s discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the south.
He also compared testimony against legalize marijuana to “Reefer Madness” a long discredited 1936 film about the effects of marijuana.
A lot of unanswered questions
Kevin Sabet PhD, author of “Reefer Sanity,” and a member of SAM, however, disputed some of Grant’s claims.
He and other anti-legalization members raised questions about health risks, second-hand smoke, and the likelihood of pot getting into the hands of minors.
He and others cited reports about mental and physical impairment related to use of marijuana. They produced statistics from states that have legalized recreational use, citing potential increases in homelessness, and migration of people from other states to take advantage of the legal status, posing social challenges for the host communities.
They pointed to early indications of increased DUI occurrences in those states, as well as the potential to progress to other illegal and legal prescription drugs such as opioids.
Opponents and others argued that people sometimes ingest too-high levels of THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana.
Proponents, like Grant, however, argue that many of these issues can be addressed through a comprehensive education program – such as is provided by his distribution centers.
Grant said that an educated public should then be allowed to make their own choice as to whether to use it or not.
While he admitted some companies might not hire people who use marijuana, the legalized pot industry supplies new job opportunities.
He said California has instituted local laws similar to sanctuary cities that would prohibit local cops from reporting marijuana use to federal authorities.
Rice in an aside during the hearing said that New Jersey differs from other states in that it is almost evenly split between those who oppose legalization and those who support it.
While some polls show strong support for legalization, he said this is sometimes confused with support for legal medical marijuana. He said when the question is reconfigured, the polls show about half for and half against.
In arguing their case before the committee, opponents urged the state to wait, saying there still isn’t enough data from legalized states to make an educated decision.
“You might not be able to go back later,” said Sabet. “The first state has only had legalized recreational marijuana since 2014.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.