As New Jersey comes closer to legalizing recreational marijuana, advocates remain divided on the details of what they would like in the final bill. One side is profoundly concerned with addressing the social impact of legalization while the other’s interests lie in its potentially lucrative nature.
Cannabis legalization is expected to bring in billions of dollars to the state and create new jobs, while many expect the revenue generated from legal marijuana to address the state’s fiscal issues. Although policy experts say that the benefits to the state will not be immediate, advocates nonetheless want to see the effect as soon as possible.
An opening for people of color
The Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, one of the leaders of the pro-legalization coalition New Solutions Campaign, wishes to create an opening in the nascent industry for people of color from communities that have borne the brunt of the costs of the drug war. The coalition contains a variety of grassroots organizations including churches, synagogues, the Anti-Poverty Network, Doctors for Cannabis Regulations, the National Organization for Women-New Jersey, and the Latino Action Network.
“We’ve been advocating for several years now with our coalition. Our focus is racial equity. The California model is our model for this,” said Roseanne Scotti, State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey, citing the ballot proposal in California which modified or dismisses the criminal records of those convicted of crimes related to marijuana in the process of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.
Scotti’s group wishes to enact a bill that would include automatic and retroactive expungements for all arrests and convictions that occurred before the state expects to legalize cannabis. Furthermore, they believe those applying for dispensary licenses should include those with prior arrests or convictions and come from a diversity of backgrounds. Also, fees for entering the market should be reasonably priced.
The ghost of Chris Christie
However, the bills that have been introduced in the New Jersey legislature addressing legalization thus far do not address these issues.
Cannabis legalization lingered for years under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie who was adamantly opposed to it. Christie also heavily restricted the medical marijuana program that his predecessor signed into law. Only six medical dispensaries were allowed to operate.
“There’s a lot of momentum now. The governor, the Senate President, and Assembly Speaker are all supportive. We’re working on getting the votes. We’ve had a lot of our legislators go out to Colorado to see how it works,” said Scotti, noting how far the process has come.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office in January, campaigned on recreational marijuana legalization and had been steadily moving in that direction by expanding medical marijuana and his Attorney General temporarily halted the persecution of petty marijuana possession charges on the municipal level in June.
A new, profitable industry
On the other side of the pro-legalization camp are those who are interested in the creation of a new industry in the state and the profit to be had from it. One such organization is the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association which has been holding pricey forums to educate a potential class of business owners in the cannabis industry. The membership dues range from $1,000 to $10,000 a year.
The association’s members include marijuana businesses, growers, dispensaries, nonprofits wishing to educate new business owners, and prominent law firms.
Gov. Murphy’s Chief of Staff, Peter Cammarano, is the former President of the NJCIA, having resigned his position to take up his current post.
Other organizations have been holding forums as well to educate attendees on the nuances of running a marijuana-based business.
Many prominent state lobbyists now have as clients companies successful elsewhere in the country in the legal marijuana industry and are now looking to enter the market in New Jersey. Former Gov. Jim Florio recently became an adviser to Nuka Enterprises, a company known for making a variety of marijuana edibles.
The state’s largest news outlet, NJ.com, started a premium only section devoted entirely to the marijuana industry to cash in on the trend.
“Those of us who have been working on this for a long time have always had a racial justice reform focus. It’s interesting to see how marijuana has become a growth industry and people are getting involved now,” said Scotti.
Reaching a common goal
While the two camps have different end goals in mind, neither can be reached unless the common goal of cannabis legalization can be agreed upon first.
“We always try and find common ground with everyone working on the issues. There’s certain minority cannabis groups who are interested in racial equity and social justice and a source of financial growth with whom we’re very much aligned. We’ve also seen around the country bad actors such as in Ohio where they sought to create a monopoly,” said Scotti. “If groups are looking at this solely for making money and not repairing the harm done to community of color, we would certainly be in opposition to those,” Scotti.
In 2015, a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana failed to pass because many supporters of legalization, including the Ohio branch of the Drug Policy Alliance, did not like that the bill would have given one corporation, Responsible Ohio, the sole authority to sell marijuana in the state legally.
Scotti is hopeful that a new bill that legislators are in the process of negotiating and subsequently introducing in the legislature will contain the provision for which her coalition has advocated.
“The most important thing isn't just a bill, it’s a great bill. We’d rather have it take longer than a bill that doesn’t do the right thing,” said Scotti.
In addition to the issue of the criminal justice reform, there are other issues which are still being hotly debated such as the number of recreational dispensaries which will be allowed.
Murphy had initially promised such a bill within his first 100 days and subsequently by the end of June. However, budget negotiations in part delayed the process. Many experts believe that a bill will pass this fall.