Almost everything I ever needed to know about the difficulties in market marijuana I learned from a board game, Feds n’ Heads, torn out of the pages of Playboy magazine in the early 1970s.
Based on counter-culture comic, The Furry Freak Brothers and the historic capitalist game, Monopoly, Feds ‘n Heads required players to circle a game board seeking to purchase enough marijuana to win.
Players were faced with numerous obstacles especially from law enforcement that often resulted in a player being sent to jail. And since we generally played the game under the influence, it became a very lesson in the real-world challenges people faced.
The game came out prior to the passing of the odious Rockefeller Laws that established harsh, mandatory sentences even for minor possession, and the well-meaning, but short-sighted concept of arresting people for minor offences before they committed more serious sometimes violent crimes. This last – which often involved racial profiling – mistakenly assumed that people who wanted to smoke or even deal marijuana would inevitably fall into a life of serious even violent crime.
Historically marijuana has been the victim of bad press, scary stories about the social and moral impact it had on users. Once consider at gateway drug – the first step towards harder drugs – marijuana has recently received a reprieve. Part of its bad press came from the fact that to buy marijuana, you were often required to seek out dealers who often also dealt harder drugs.
But even this is something of an illusion since many marijuana dealers made up a cottage industry, supplementing their income by selling to people they knew at the local bar or even at their workplace.
Recently some communities like Jersey City have decided to cease prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana or fining people rather than putting them in jail. This is an element of a possible eventual decriminalization – one option that state could embrace if it fails to legalize it as other states have done.
Even President Donald Trump recently suggested he might support some change in federal policy which still outlaws use and possession. Federal law currently considers marijuana in the same class of drugs as heroin, cocaine and LSD. If New Jersey were to legalize marijuana in the state nobody living in a federal-subsidized building would legally use it in their home.
With a change of perception of marijuana use, many are looking for significant reforms that would not just merely keep people from going to jail for its use and sale, but to actually generate desperately needed tax income for the state. One very optimistic estimate suggested the state might see as much as $300 million. More recent studies suggest this might be far less.
Legalizing marijuana became one of the key campaign promises made by Phil Murphy when he ran for governor in 2017, but one that has faced a number of roadblocks.
But opposition to legalization has been fiercer than many initially expected. While the state Assembly passed the legislation, the state Senate came up three or four votes short. A new move to pass it in the lame duck session later this year would have to budge already determined opponents to change their votes.
This failure to legalize the use and sale of marijuana, and this could result in a referendum being put on the 2020 ballot. Unfortunately, if voters choose to legalize it, the state will have less control over the industry that emerges as a result.
Some towns like Jersey City have already altered their zoning laws to anticipate passage of the state legislation to allow cities to control where cannabis can be sold. If a local municipality does not have its own ordinance in place, then the state legislation supersedes it. But it is unclear what regulations would prevail, if the referendum passes.
Many towns like Secaucus have voted to allow medical marijuana sales, but not recreational. This raises questions about what happens in those towns under the referendum. Would potential cannabis sellers apply for state permits bypassing local restrictions?
The state legislation also comes with restrictions of its own. Dispensaries cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a school, nursery or daycare – an almost impossible regulation for some small towns. Bayonne, for instance, attempted once to set up a similar restriction on where registered pedophiles could live, and found there was no location in the city where they could live.
The state regulations would also require also provisions for indoor and outdoor consumption areas. Under this legislation, cannabis establishments would likely mirror those that are regulated for sale of alcohol. This also means that anyone under the age of 21 would still be subject to arrest for use or possession.
Where these establishments are located also become a social issue. Will they be located in primarily poor neighborhoods — most likely populated by people of color?
Another key issue is what happens to those already convicted and sorting through those cases which involve assorted crimes?
In hearings held in Jersey City in 2018, state Senator Ronald Rise – chair of the NJ Legislative Black Caucus – raised serious concerns about the need for expungement and the impact on the African American community legalization might have.
While the state legislature passed legislation – introduced in the senate by Senator Sandra Cunningham – Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed it. Both bills establish a system of Clean Slate Expungements. This means that if an ex-offender is not convicted of a crime for 10 years, he or she could have his or her record prior to that 10 year period expunged. This is the case in both the Cunningham bill and the Murphy CV. Still, the legislation fell under the pen.
Many of those currently incarcerated or with a drug conviction on their record have been convicted for minor offenses under a law that set a range of possession from a few grams to a number of pounds.
A blanket expungement would mean people convicted for possession and likely sale of large amounts would also go free – an intolerable selling point for legislators in either party seeking reelection in more conservative parts of the state.
The impact of this standoff has huge implications for Jersey City – which is a designated Impact Zone – under the failed legalizing legislation. The city would be first in line in the state to set up cannabis businesses.
The sad part for us Feds ‘n Heads fans is that legalization will destroy the cottage industry and will allow corporations to sweep in and take over the market. This is a criticism of one California group that has tried to protect small business operators through by establishing a consortium. Will there be such as group established in New Jersey to help protect small dealers?
The questions never cease.