Marijuana Legalization Would Force Tough Choice for NJ Towns

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For a couple of years, it seemed the legalized marijuana phenomenon was largely confined to the Rocky Mountain States and those further west. However, during the past year laws have gone on the books in Maine, Massachusetts and Washington DC that allow for the legal possession of cannabis as well as its recreational use. With the election of Democrat Phil Murphy to the governorship of New Jersey, it seems the Garden State may become the next domino to fall in the movement to make pot legal from sea to stoner sea. Murphy did, after all, make legalized marijuana one of his most prominent campaign promises. But while there are plenty of Bill and Ted’s out there celebrating what seems a like a sure thing, marijuana remains a divisive issue, and there are a great number of people in New Jersey who want nothing to do with people, young or otherwise, strolling or driving their streets puffing on a spliff. This puts plenty of cities and towns in a tight spot facing some tough choices in the coming year.

Is Legalized Marijuana in New Jersey Inevitable?

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That seems like the most rhetorical of questions because, after all, the governor-elect has said he’d make legalized marijuana in New Jersey a priority and a bill has already been drafted to do just that by State Senator Nicholas Scutari. Everyone wandering the corridors of the state house assumes it's a done deal, but when you get away from the isolated environment of Trenton, you sometimes find considerable opposition to the notion of legalized pot and not just from old fuddy-duddies who have a problem with everything.

The Social Justice Argument

Murphy has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to legalize pot because of the revenue it would generate, but because it’s the right thing to do from a “social justice” point of view. This argument contends that one reason the state’s prisons are disproportionately filled with blacks and Hispanics is that those groups are many times more likely to be busted for pot, even though usage among those groups is no greater than it is among whites. And that’s a position supported by statistics. 

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However, other voices say that this is the wrong way to obtain social justice, especially in light of the recently declared national opioid crisis. To these folks trying to level the scales of justice by making drug use legal is like trying to reduce the number of high school dropouts by making education voluntary.

The Forgotten Cities and Towns

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There’s another aspect of the legalization saga that is hardly ever talked about and yet is likely to have a huge impact on the legal marijuana experience in New Jersey. And that is the state's many smaller cities and town. Many of them are going to be faced with very tough decisions regarding the production and sale of cannabis. On the one hand, if they allow it in their town they're likely to enjoy a revenue windfall and perhaps create some new jobs as well. On the other hand, they're also likely to experience the unwanted side effects that come with drug use.

Colorado is often cited as an example of a state that went through a successful transition to legalized marijuana yet nearly 50% of that state’s cities and towns don’t allow marijuana production or legal marijuana sales within their boundaries, so there is certainly plenty of homegrown opposition to go with the homegrown weed. Is New Jersey destined to become another state divided by the notion of legalized marijuana? It certainly seems so. And there are a number of reasons for that. First, many rural residents fear that legal marijuana will mean an explosion of pot inside schools. Others fear that trying to make sure producers and sellers are obeying both the spirit and the letter of the law will add huge expenses to their already stressed law enforcement budgets. Still, others point to the fact that it can be difficult to determine if someone is driving high since there’s no breathalyzer equivalent for pot.

An Invitation to Impaired Driving?

Statistics from Colorado point to a noticeable uptick in traffic fatalities in the wake of legalized marijuana although there is no way to definitively make the link between pot and the increased road deaths. However, it’s also noted that the number of drivers who have tested positive for pot use (it requires a blood test) has jumped more than 100% since the drug was legalized. This has led many to conclude the legalizing pot is undoing all the progress made over the past few decades to get drunks off the road. Almost overnight, they say, we’ve replaced all those drunk drivers with stoned drivers and put road safety as a whole back 30 or 40 years.

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Still, politicians in many towns are likely to be seduced by the prospect of easy (tax) money even if it seems likely some or all of it will need to be spent beefing up the law enforcement response to more stoned drivers. Outgoing governor Christie speaks for many when he calls the legalization movement "beyond stupidity" and takes Democrats to the woodshed for being unable to resist what he sees as "blood money." Those same Democrats, however, are unfazed and typically point to what they believe will be the myriad benefits to quality of life funded by an estimated $300 million per year in statewide tax revenue from legal marijuana sales.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, many New Jersey municipalities will need to decide whether they are willing to put up with the downside of legalized marijuana in order to obtain increased tax revenue or are they going to side with their more conservative citizens and ban the production and sales of marijuana in their town (they will not be able to ban its use since that will become legal statewide). No matter which side you're on in the great pot debate, it doesn't seem like an issue that's going to disappear from the headlines anytime soon.

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