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Rutgers professor discusses marijuana legalization

If the public approves marijuana legalization, anyone age 21 years or older will be able to use cannabis recreationally in New Jersey. – Photo by Pxfuel

A constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in New Jersey for this year’s election. 

If the amendment is approved, adults 21 years or older would be able to use cannabis recreationally, according to the official ballot question. It also states that cannabis products will be subject to the state’s sales tax as well as potential additional local taxes.

An initial bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey ultimately failed in 2019 despite a majority of the public supporting it, according to an article from The New York Times

The outcome of legalization is unclear, said Lewis Nelson, a professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and director of the Division of Medical Toxicology.

“There are implications that can be potentially positive or negative and the answer will not be known until this is actually completed, assuming it is,” Nelson said. 

While it is possible to look at the outcomes of other states that have legalized marijuana, there still is no definitive answer of the effects, he said. 

“We have evidence from other states that have made this change, and like many issues we see in politics and philosophy, the interpretation is often subjective even when the data are objective,” Nelson said. 

The states that have legalized marijuana, including Colorado and California, have had mixed outcomes, he said. Due to this, people can look at the same data and interpret it in different ways based on their own perspectives.

Positive outcomes of legalization include increased personal liberty, benefits toward social justice and tax revenue to be used for relevant causes, he said. 

“Social justice is a very credible argument that may be able to be fixed through appropriate legislation including decriminalization,” Nelson said. 

The state’s initial bill to legalize marijuana in 2019, which was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, would have expunged criminal records, released people from prison and ended parole for people convicted of minor drug charges related to marijuana, according to The New York Times. 

The negative effects that may potentially occur include danger to self and others, increased drug use and financial troubles, Nelson said. 

“Personal liberty comes at the price of societal risk, in terms of injury to self and others (e.g., driving while stoned) as well as increased likelihood of use by those who may not otherwise due to its ‘legal’ status,” he said. “The tax burden is somewhat regressive on those who can least afford it, risking personal financial risk and additional societal burden.”

Figuring out what works best in terms of regulation may be a challenge for legislators, he said. Nelson demonstrated this idea with the comparison to alcohol.

“As with alcohol, you cannot legalize wine and restrict beer very easily,” he said. “They could try to keep the concentration of product at a reasonable level of (tetrahydrocannabinol) THC but … you just need to take more product to get the same effect.”

Nelson said that he is concerned about the outcomes of legalization, but said not all health care professionals feel the same way. 

“Cannabis will not replace opioids or alcohol or cocaine but will often be added to it, raising the risk for poor decision making and injury,” he said.

Lawmakers who opposed the initial legalization bill in 2019 were concerned with the challenges faced by other states who have gone through legalization, including people driving under the influence and marijuana use in teenagers, according to The New York Times. Additionally, some Black lawmakers felt that legalization would do more harm than good to their communities. 

While both positive and negative effects could occur from legalization, the true outcome for New Jersey will not be known until marijuana is, potentially, legalized, Nelson said. 

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