One of Phil Murphy’s campaign planks was legalizing pot.
This was by no means the state’s biggest issue, but it gave the 61-year-old governor a semblance of cache with many millennials and other liberals.
Murphy always framed the issue as a way to raise money, projecting that making recreational marijuana legal could mean $300 million a year in taxes. Considering that no such revenue stream exists now, this would be “found money.” Sort of, at least.
But here’s the reality. Murphy has been governor for about two months now, and state residents are no closer to being able to light up a joint without fear of arrest than they were six months ago.
There has been push back from various sources.
Sen. Ronald Rice, D-28th, a former police officer, says legalizing pot would adversely impact the minority community. Others say they agree. Rice fears legalization would increase users and eventually lead to abuse. It’s a curious viewpoint, given the fact many studies suggest that African Americans are now disproportionately arrested on pot charges. This makes sense, at least anecdotally. After all, people passing around a joint on a street corner or park in Newark are more likely to be arrested than individuals indulging in a spacious suburban back yard in Morris County.
But there’s more to the reticence than fear of how legalization would affect minorities.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd, a long-time supporter of legalization, recently sized up things this way. “Politicians are not known as a courageous bunch,” Scutari noted in a conversation with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
And that is the crux of the matter.
New Jersey is perceived to be a liberal state with Democrats handily controlling both houses of the Legislature. But as we have seen before, all Democrats are not necessarily progressives.
Another social issue from the not too distant past offers up some proof. And that is marriage equality. Given the state’s perceived liberal tendencies, one would have expected that lawmakers would have passed marriage equality, and if need be, override a veto from a Republican governor like Chris Christie.
But that was not the case. Marriage equality didn’t come about in the state until the courts essentially forced it to happen in 2013. Whatever the stated reasons for delay at the time, it was clear that many lawmakers were simply afraid – afraid to move in a direction that would challenge traditional norms and invite criticism.
In some ways, the foot-dragging on legalizing pot is reminiscent of how lawmakers acted on gay marriage. Senate President Stephen Sweeney since has said that not backing gay marriage was a mistake. Time will tell if he one day feels the same about pot legalization.
The state really would not be reinventing the wheel here. Recreational pot is legal in eight states plus the District of Columbia. And the trend is clearly going in that direction.
Of course, it’s not only Democrats. Republicans, some of whom enjoy boasting about their Libertarian tendencies, should see pot prohibition as an unwarranted display of government power.
A bright note here is that many in Trenton seem to support improving the state’s medical marijuana program, which was established in what was the last consequential act by then-governor Jon Corzine in January, 2010. Christie never looked kindly on medical pot, perhaps because the program was started by his predecessor. Whatever the reason, it took a long time for dispensaries to get up and running. Anything the Murphy administration can do to expedite that process going forward and to expand the list of eligible ailments covered by the medical marijuana law would be most welcome – especially by ill people who need the drug.
In the meantime, what happens with recreational pot in New Jersey? If lawmakers continue to fear moving in that direction, they should consider the easy way out. Why not put pot legalization on the ballot as a referendum?
Granted, we elect lawmakers to make decisions, not to avoid them. But there are times when politicians’ inaction demands that the voters decide.
And this can be one of those times.