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High time to legalize recreational marijuana in NJ


Dominick “Nick” Bucci carried out over 1,000 arrests and convictions over 22 years working as an undercover detective in narcotics. Looking back, the retired New Jersey State Trooper feels that he “was doing it all wrong,” calling the War on Drugs, the U.S. campaign to end illegal drug trade, an “abject failure.”

“I really didn’t do anything other than lock people up,” Bucci told The Daily Princetonian, adding that he prevented these people from getting jobs, student loans, and housing. He noted that narcotics enforcement drives people who are arrested for illegal drug possession back into the narcotics trade, the only way they can earn a living.


“Now, I’m trying to make up for that by getting some of these laws changed,” said Bucci, who is involved with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of drug policy and criminal justice reforms to improve public safety. LEAP supports legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana in New Jersey.

Recreational marijuana will likely be legalized in the state after Governor-elect Phil Murphy takes office. Murphy has indicated he will sign a legalization bill, such as the one introduced last year, which would legalize, regulate, and tax the drug in order to reap the benefit of extra tax dollars and alleviate racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. The University follows state drug laws and has indicated that if marijuana is legalized, administrators will “make a determination … of how we would address any impact it would have on us,” as Daniel Day, assistant vice president for communications, told the ‘Prince.’

A report last year found that New Jersey has the biggest racial gap in incarceration rates of any state in the United States, putting black residents behind bars at 12 times the rate of white residents. Despite similar usage rates, blacks are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

The green light signal from Murphy has attracted the attention of several stakeholders — retired state troopers, racial justice organizations, consulting firms, and trade associations — all looking to ensure that the rollout of the recreational marijuana program is efficient and just.

“We have the benefit of the hindsight of all the different cannabis markets in the country,” explained Hugh O’Beirne, the recently selected president of the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association, a nonprofit seeking to reform and rationalize the medical marijuana program and promote the full legalization of marijuana for adults.

“We want to see a robust, accessible market,” said O’Beirne. States that have rolled out recreational marijuana programs have seen net economic benefits and no social detriment, although there are pitfalls to avoid, according to O’Beirne.



Cannabis products are displayed in a store window in Amsterdam. Such products are not available in New Jersey for recreational purposes, but under the new state administration, such products may be around the corner. 

“When the switch is flipped, there are so many opportunities for massive failure,” he said. If the marijuana industry is not robust, the black market begins to fill in the gaps. NJCIA brings operational expertise to the legislative discussion, educating state legislators and decision makers so they can responsibly develop a program to roll out, according to O’Beirne. In addition, NJCIA will help bring marijuana operators and financiers to the state and educate them about licensing, delivery, production, cultivation, dispensing, and distribution.

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Along with opening up a profitable industry, legalization is likely to benefit the state economically. New Jersey spends $127 million each year on marijuana possession enforcement costs, including marijuana possession arrests, which constitute the majority of drug possession arrests, the ‘Prince’ previously reported. Instead, the recreational marijuana program will generate about $300 million in tax revenue.

Through collecting this tax revenue, the state has an opportunity to pay back the communities most affected by past drug laws. Last year, California passed a marijuana legalization initiative that incorporated significant elements of social justice measures. Under Prop. 64, $50 million will be granted annually to support economic development, job placement, and legal services in communities disproportionately harmed by drug war policies, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped draft the measure. DPA is a drug policy reform organization working to end the War on Drugs.

“People who had prior drug convictions would not be denied the opportunity to apply for license solely on that basis,” explained Ethan Nadelmann, founder and former executive director of DPA. Nadelmann taught politics and public affairs at the University from 1987 to 1994.

“There needs to be a pathway in the industry for folks … who have been disproportionately harmed from marijuana prohibition,” said Kris Krane, founder and president of 4Front Ventures, an investing and consulting company. The ownership of most of the companies in the marijuana industry looks a lot like corporate America: white and male, according to Krane.

“If the barriers to entry are really high, particularly in terms of capital requirements, it makes it very difficult for people from marginalized communities to get involved,” explained Krane. “I think that’s a real shame if we wind up in a place where the people who are most harmed by marijuana prohibition don’t have an avenue to participate” in the legal market.

However, there are more ways — through law and regulation — that the state can rectify this injustice. Pennsylvania used a point scale to select which companies to award licenses for its medical marijuana program. Ten percent of the possible point total was awarded for a diversity plan outlining how the company places a priority on diversity in hiring practices, outreach, and affirmative action.

“That section wound up being the difference between the winners and losers in that [application] process,” said Krane.

Another way to ensure people of color and low-income communities are not excluded from the legal market involves having the state grant equity licenses to those disproportionately affected by the marijuana prohibition, as California did. Additionally, states could require companies to show their commitment to justice reinvestment, which includes giving back to affected communities, often in creative ways such as building ball fields or supporting schools in the area.

“New Jersey has the opportunity to really set the standard for what legalization on the East Coast is going to look like,” said Krane.

In the 1980s, New Jersey was the only state in America in which more than 50 percent of all new commitments to state prisons were for drug law violations, according to Nadelmann.

When Nadelmann was teaching, a student in one of his classes was arrested for marijuana possession. 

“He had to go through hell,” Nadelmann recalls, “and the hell he had to go through at Princeton, coming from a wealthy white family … was very different than a poor person of color getting caught in the same situation. But it was still absurd and ridiculous.”

While teaching at the University, Nadelmann became increasingly critical of the War on Drugs and argued for decriminalization. He said he was regarded as “hopelessly optimistic, utopian, a flake.”

He calls the prospect of New Jersey becoming the first state to legalize marijuana through legislation “enormously satisfying.”

Around the same time Nadelmann was working at the University, O’Beirne was getting involved with anti-drug war advocacy with his mother.

“We saw it as a horrible travesty, a social justice nightmare,” he said, referring to it as “a truncation of freedom.”

In the late 1980s, the benefits of cannabis were lesser known, but O’Beirne knew that marijuana was safer than the War on Drugs.

“We didn’t see marijuana as a gateway drug. We saw it as gateway for … the harm of people’s freedoms,” O’Beirne said. “Their liberty, property was confiscated … in the process of telling people they could not harvest and ingest this flower.”

The War on Drugs was a vicious cycle, according to Bucci, recalling how he would wait around in poor communities and arrest people who were buying marijuana from street dealers, considered the “low hanging fruit of the tree.” At the end of the day, Bucci would arrest the dealer, too.

“That’s what we did just to keep the numbers up, to keep the federal money flowing into the state,” he explained, “because the more arrests we made, the more money we got from the the federal government.”

Bucci thinks marijuana legalization is a start but that “heavier drugs” should also be decriminalized.

“Heroin is a dangerous drug,” he said, “but we have other drugs out there that are legal that are more dangerous than heroin,” such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which are 100 times stronger than morphine.

DPA takes a public health approach to drug law, stating that “our focus should be on the harm caused by drug use and the harm caused by our policy responses to it.”

New Jersey’s legalization of marijuana will be an historic first step, and a chance to “right a historical wrong,” as Krane put it.

O’Beirne hopes to see “significant steps” taken with the legislation before June 2018, noting that the process is lengthy.

O’Beirne is confident in the future of the state’s drug policy. “The governor-elect’s vision is fantastic and right on,” he said. “We think that the amount of understanding — that this is something that is a net benefit for our state — will help us drive regulation and legislation quickly.”