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Every 22 minutes, someone in New Jersey is arrested for marijuana possession, according to a 2012 statistic cited in a new bill introduced by New Jersey lawmakers on May 15. Just this month, a University student was arrested for possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana, according to a local police report. 

Sponsored by Democratic state senator Nicholas Scutari, the bill would legalize, regulate, and tax recreational marijuana in New Jersey, joining eight other states that host recreational marijuana programs. The new bill seeks to alleviate racial inequalities in the criminal justice system by legalizing the drug. The University's stance surrounding the drug's use is not immune to the potential policy change.

In accordance with state law, the University “prohibits the illegal possession, use, sale, or manufacture of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia … [V]iolators may be subject to mandatory penalties in addition to University disciplinary action,” according to Section 1.6.1 of Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. Additionally, smoking is prohibited in University buildings and outdoor spaces within 25 feet of these buildings, according to Section 1.6.3. 

“If the state enacts legislation that affects the University, we would assess it at the time and make a determination then of how we would address any impact it would have on us,” wrote Daniel Day, Assistant Vice President for Communications in an email. Other universities have continued to prohibit recreational marijuana, despite changes in state law.

Medical marijuana has been permitted in New Jersey since 2010. In 2014, a University dining service operations manager left his employment after a dispute about his medical marijuana use.

The new bill would allow for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana products in solid form, 72 ounces in liquid form, and seven grams of concentrate. Unlike other marijuana programs in the U.S., the proposal does not allow home cultivation.

Notably, if the bill is passed, it would represent the first instance of marijuana legalization through legislative action, as opposed to ballot measures.

Along with the large enforcement costs, lawmakers cite racial injustice in law enforcement and sentencing as reasons to legalize the drug. Despite similar usage rates, “black New Jerseyans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white New Jerseyans,” reads the bill. The state spends $127 million each year on marijuana possession enforcement costs, including marijuana possession arrests, which constitute the majority of drug possession arrests.

Under Scutari’s proposal, the state will control and regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of marijuana. Scutari expects the program will generate about $300 million in tax revenue.

The Democratic front-runner for New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Phil Murphy, and all other Democratic candidates on the ballot support the bill. The Republican candidates, on the other hand, are split. Nevertheless, supporters remain optimistic.

The legalization of marijuana “is not a matter of ‘if’ but rather a matter of ‘when,’” said Dianna Houenou, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey policy counsel.

“It won't be long after the inauguration of the new governor before we see the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey,” said Dr. David Nathan ’90, a psychiatrist who founded the organization Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and who serves a member of the New Jersey United For Marijuana Reform coalition’s steering committee, which includes leaders from the ACLU-NJ, the NAACP, and the law enforcement retirees.

Doctors have “an ethical obligation to speak up against injustice,” said Nathan, citing the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics. “We must seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient and advocate for the health of our patients,” he said, quoting the third and seventh principles.

Nathan has seen far more lives ruined by “unnecessary, ineffective and harmful prohibition” of marijuana than by the drug itself.

A marijuana possession arrest “can leave a lifelong impact,” according to a NJUMR press release, “foreclosing opportunities for student loans, barring people from public housing, and even affecting custody of children.”

Addressing concerns about the trickle-down effect to minors, Nathan held that “legalization would reduce point of access for usage for underage usage.” 80-90 percent of American eighteen-year-olds can already easily obtain the drug, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Legalization would make a regulated retail environment the point of access, a safer alternative to dealers who do not check for identification and often sell harder drugs.

Despite costing taxpayers billions, the government’s effort to curb drug use and availability has largely failed, according to a 2013 ACLU report on marijuana enforcement across the country.

“The ACLU is looking for legislation that is creating a fair and open legal market,” said Houenou, explaining ACLU-NJ’s involvement with NJUMR.

“The prohibition of marijuana disproportionately affects not just people of color, but also the poor,” said Nathan. “Poverty is perpetuated by the prohibition of marijuana. Poverty is itself is a public health issue.”

Given the prohibition’s disproportionate effects on black and poor communities, members of NJUMR have called for marijuana tax revenue to go towards reinvestment programs, such as drug treatment and community investment programs. The coalition also supports the legalization of home-grown marijuana for individuals, caps on licensing fees, and extending licensure qualifications to people regardless of prior criminal convictions.

The current proposal, which does not allow individual cultivation, “puts undue burden on people of lower socioeconomic status,” said Nathan. In addition expressing concern about the proposal’s exclusion of former convicts from participating in the program, Nathan added that the bill “prevents people who have been convicted of drug crimes from participating in the legal market. We need to make sure they are empowered to participate in the legal market.”

“While I do see lives being wrecked by drug abuse, very rarely is the problematic drug marijuana,” said Nathan, adding that alcohol and tobacco were more often the problem. “One of the most effective options against opioid use is marijuana legalization,” he said. A 2014 study found that legalizing marijuana lead to a decrease in fatal opiate overdoses.

The effort to legalize marijuana is not without its critics. Governor Chris Christie  — the most unpopular governor in the United States according to an April poll, and an ex officio trustee of the University — is one of the state’s most vocal opponents. On May 1, during a substance abuse conference hosted by the New Jersey Hospital Association in Princeton, he called supporters of legalization “crazy liberals” who want to poison New Jersey’s children for tax revenue.

He began his marijuana polemic by attacking a recent Star-Ledger editorial that declared it is time to “forget decriminalization” and “legalize weed.” He took issue with an estimate mentioned in the editorial, which suggested that New Jersey could receive about $300 million in annual tax revenue from recreational marijuana.

“This is the part that liberals love the most: We can tax it,” Christie said sarcastically at the conference. “Sweet Jesus, we can tax it! More money for us!”

“I can say this now because I’m not running for anything again: $300 million is nothing,” he added. “We have a $35.5 billion budget; $300 million is a rounding error. I’m sorry, it’s true. Think about it; that’s one percent — less than one percent — of the entire state budget for a year. And we’re going to poison our kids for one percent more money that they can spend on some God-awful, stupid program that they can put in the mailer and send out and say, ‘I delivered $300 million more for this.’”

He then went on to characterize the paper which published the editorial as “the idiot Star-Ledger.” Similarly, Christie had no kind words for other supporters of legalization at the conference.

“People like Nick Scutari and Steve Sweeney and Phil Murphy want to bring this poison, legalized, into this state under the premise that, well, it doesn’t matter because people can buy it illegally anyway,” Christie said. “Then why not legalize heroin? I mean, their argument fails just on that basis. Let’s legalize cocaine. Let’s legalize heroin. Let’s legalize angel dust. Let’s legalize all of it. What’s the difference? Let everybody choose.” 

Christie’s anti-legalization rhetoric is bolstered by the advocacy of national anti-cannabis groups such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The professional society, which represents over 4,300 physicians, clinicians and associated professionals in the field of addiction medicine, is dedicated to increasing access and improving the quality of addiction treatment amongst other things. According to the organization’s most recent public policy statement, it “does not support the legalization of marijuana and recommends that jurisdictions that have not acted to legalize marijuana be most cautious.” It does, however, support decriminalization.

The College Democrats and College Republicans at the University declined to comment.

Supporters of legalization remain confident.

“If the prohibition of alcohol proved impractical, then we can’t logically support the prohibition of a substance that is not nearly as harmful,” Nathan said. “At the same time, tobacco and alcohol use among minors is falling, marijuana use has increased drastically despite its prohibition.”

“If we want kids to believe us when we tell them that marijuana is bad, we need to create a distinction” between good and bad use, according to Nathan, “so we can be credible when we try to persuade children and teenagers to wait until they’re adults to use marijuana.”

He added that humans have had a long history of drug use. “That’s going to continue whether or not we have laws against the use of those drugs.”

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