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Panelists, student discuss legalization of marijuana

Panelists hold an open forum to discuss legalization of the sale and possession of marijuana. – Photo by Shirley Yu

Politics has polarized the issue of marijuana legalization and created two stark sides on an issue that, in actuality, has a strong middle ground, said Steven Liga, part-time lecturer in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has submitted a bill for introduction on Monday that would legalize the sale and possession of marijuana, according to

The bill, which would allow people to grow their own marijuana, follows the lead of Colorado, which legalized the possession and sale of the drug for recreational use on Jan. 1. Scuteri believes smoking marijuana should be as accessible to adults as drinking a beer, according to

In light of this controversial topic, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Middlesex County, Inc. and the Bloustein School co-sponsored the 2014 Policy Forum yesterday entitled “Marijuana: A Complicated Issue. Let’s Talk.”

Liga, executive director and CEO of NCADD, introduced the event and explained that the purpose of the event was to open up a dialogue rather than convince students of one persuasion or another.

“When it comes to any kind of marijuana policy, people have a lot of opinions on that. … Often, those opinions are based on sound bytes you might have heard, not a lot of factual information,” he said.

The current policies stifle discussion and lack credibility, and he hopes students will start to understand the issue does not have to be black or white — a middle ground exists.

Before the panelists spoke, Liga conducted a survey of the audience via the use of clickers to understand what the students in the room thought about the legalization of marijuana.

Forty-four percent of students who answered thought marijuana should be decriminalized, according to the survey.

Sixty-eight percent of students who answered agreed marijuana use would increase if made legal.

David Buch, chief medical officer and clinical psychiatrist at Carrier Clinic, said students should approach this issue in a scientific, rather than emotional way.

Marijuana is the most common illicit abused drug, and studies have shown most teenagers think marijuana is safe.

Buch said people believe that marijuana use does not cause major withdrawal symptoms, but people once made the same argument about cocaine.

He talked about medical uses for marijuana, stating that it can help with pain, has anti-nausea properties, prevents weight loss in cancer and AIDS patients, along with various other medical advantages.

One of the areas of controversy regarding marijuana is its characterization as a “gateway drug.”

Buch noted that marijuana could precipitate psychosis, panic and depression to those who are predisposed. It can act as a trigger.

He said more research is needed to understand the long-term impacts of marijuana.

Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey Inc. and a registered nurse, said he endorses the legalization of marijuana.

He thinks the medicinal marijuana program in New Jersey has been dysfunctional and a failure.

“There are just so many patients that could be helped in New Jersey that we’ve endorsed legalization,” he said.

New Jersey has the most restrictive medical marijuana program of the 20 states that have such programs.

With its legalization, the state would earn enormous tax benefits.

Wolski worked in the prison system and saw people in maximum-security prisons for non-violent marijuana offenses. Many lost student loans and have been evicted from their houses for a single marijuana offense, consequences that murderers and rapists do not always face.

“The consequences for marijuana offenses in our current system is quite severe, and is it working,” he said.

The legalization of marijuana would actually make it more difficult for teenagers to get their hands on, at least as difficult as it is for those who are underage to buy cigarettes, Wolski said.

Frank Greenagel, the recovery counselor at both Rutgers-New Brunswick and Newark campuses oversees recovery housing and coordinates student and alumni activities. He said marijuana does not need to be legalized, but instead decriminalized.

He thinks marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, but it would still be a “revenue loser.”

A marijuana tax would be revenue negative, he said. In terms of the state budget, the amount it would bring in would be insignificant.

Marijuana dissolves in fat, and white blood cells under the influence of marijuana act “all chill and laid-back.” If a student gets bronchitis and has marijuana, they will be sick for much longer than their counterpart who does not smoke marijuana.

One issue to think about is driving, Greenagel noted. Marijuana slows reflexes, and if users smoke marijuana and drive, they are more likely to get into accidents.

Greenagel mentioned the marketing machine in America.

McDonald’s makes money off the people who buy Big Macs everyday, and marijuana sellers will make money off of the 19-year-old who is getting high three times per day.

He predicts that America would see more arrests with the legalization of marijuana, which will lead to hiring more police officers.

“The economics are not good here,” Greenagel said.

A chemical engineering student at Rutgers, who chose to remain anonymous, was the last panelist to speak. He discussed how he spent his entire life feeling socially ostracized, but marijuana let him connect with other people and feel comfortable in himself when he started smoking at 14.

“I chased that all the way into very bad places,” he said.

The student, who is bipolar, said he soon became dependent upon the drug — he once smoked for a week straight without sleeping.

He ended up spending a year in rehabilitation, moved to Maine and everything was working out, until he started smoking again.

“It was about four months I was out there using and smoking and what happened is I got caught with a possession charge and a reckless driving charge in a manic episode, and I was taken to jail,” he said.

He found himself homeless in Maine after he got out of jail, and got drunk and high, continuing to smoke for another four months after that.

“I just couldn’t get enough weed and couldn’t get enough alcohol to make me feel right. … And that was when I decided to get sober,” he said. “Because of smoking marijuana, I lost years of my life.”

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