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BY KEN WOLSKI
New Jersey Republicans are united in their opposition to reforms to the current marijuana laws. According to a NJ.com article, (“Here’s how your N.J. lawmaker is leaning on legalizing weed,”) of the 15 Senate Republicans, 14 of them plan to vote “No” on marijuana legalization, with one Undecided. In the Assembly, there is only one Republican who is willing to vote Yes. Why are the Republicans so opposed to making marijuana legal for recreational use among adults?
The results of expanding the existing marijuana laws are consistent with Republican ideals of fiscal responsibility, small government, and rights of the individual. But Republicans here are willing to maintain a vast army of criminal justice employees to manage the mass incarceration and insults to civil rights that are brought about by marijuana prohibition.
It is ironic that Republican Assemblyman Harold “Hal” Wirths recently blamed Democrats for delaying expansion of the medical marijuana program by tying it to S2703, the bill to legalize marijuana for adults (“The Democrats’ political machine is failing medical marijuana patients, a Republican legislator says” ). When the “Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act” was in the legislature from 2005 to 2010, it was difficult to find any Republicans who supported it. Despite polling that showed over 80% of voters supported medical marijuana in the state, it took almost four full years before a single Republican would vote to support it. Bill Baroni’s vote in the Senate Health Committee on December 15, 2008 was a “profile in courage” moment as he considered all the evidence and followed his conscience, defying party leadership, by voting “Yes.” The bill passed into law in 2010, but Republican governor Chris Christie came into office and, for eight years, put delays and roadblocks in the implementation of the medical marijuana law.
Mr. Wirths’ concern about patients is appreciated, but he should tell his fellow Republicans that marijuana legalization is the best way to get this medicine to the most people. Legalization changes marijuana from a drug that requires multiple doctor visits to one that can be purchased over the counter, like aspirin.
Perhaps some legislators have been honestly misled by reports that marijuana legalization has been a public health and safety failure? Perhaps they believe the manipulated data from organizations that depend on marijuana prohibition for their funding? They may believe this despite the fact that none of the 10 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana are even considering a return to marijuana criminalization. Indeed, New Jersey is one of several states that want to duplicate the results of legalization seen elsewhere.
There is a more objective analysis, published this past October, by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Department of Public Safety, called the “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado.” According to this report, marijuana arrests decreased 52% between 2012 and 2017. What a significant impact that could have in New Jersey if half of the 32,000 marijuana arrests stopped. Police could focus on major crimes and crimes of violence. There would be tremendous savings in the costs associated with arrests, trials, imprisonment, and parole/probation services. Community members would experience fewer disruptions in their employment, education and family lives. Police/community relations would improve, especially in inner cities. This report acknowledges the measurement challenges in interpreting some information about the effects of marijuana legalization. However, some things are clear in 2017:
- Colorado DUI’s are down 11%;
- Youth marijuana use showed no significant change from 2013;
- Marijuana related calls to Poison Control Centers stabilized from 2014; and,
- Total revenue from taxes, licenses and fees rose from $64 million in 2014 to $247 million in 2017 (and CO has about half the population of NJ).
The Colorado report also notes certain concerns and challenges associated with marijuana legalization. But it is only in a system of legalized and regulated marijuana use and distribution that these concerns can be identified and addressed. The current policy of marijuana prohibition is a costly, ineffective and harmful approach that must be changed, sooner rather than later.
Republicans need to get with it.
Ken Wolski, RN, MPA
Coalition for Medical Marijuana–New Jersey, Inc.