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KOZMA: NJ is dragging its feet with marijuana legalization

Column: With Liberty and Justice for All

Although New Jersey has legalized weed, dispensaries are still far from open.  – Photo by Pixabay.com

At Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) rally in New Brunswick last month, one of his loudest applause lines was when he mentioned legalizing marijuana. It was, after all, one of the main promises that helped him win in 2018.

Back then, it seemed like a no-brainer. Ending the failed prohibitionist policies on marijuana united small-government libertarians on the Right and social justice advocates on the Left.

Yet four years later, after countless stalled legislative negotiations and a resounding referendum vote in favor of legalization, we are still working out the kinks.

The glacial pace of progress is pretty frustrating compared to states like Arizona, which only needed a few months to set up their legal recreational cannabis industry. Both Arizona and New Jersey voters approved legalization in November 2020, but Arizonans have been buying weed from the states' several dozen dispensaries since January 2021.

In New Jersey, the only thing that had happened by this January was the establishment of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), responsible for — you guessed it — regulating the cannabis industry. It did not even hold its first meeting until April. Its current deadline for setting a start date for legal over-the-counter sales is February 2022.

Given the CRC's track record on meeting deadlines so far, we may be waiting even longer.

The New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association, which represents the state's existing medical marijuana dispensaries, claims that it has enough supply to meet the demand of both the recreational and medical markets. The only obstacle is the CRC.

The greatest flaw in New Jersey's plan is the decision to keep homegrown marijuana illegal. Every other state and country which has legalized cannabis allows people to grow their own plants, at least for medical, if not recreational, purposes.

Home cultivation is illegal regardless of intent, depriving people in need of medical marijuana — from veterans with PTSD to cancer patients — of a cheap alternative to state dispensaries.

Even if you want to keep homegrown marijuana illegal for some reason, the consequences need to be a lot lighter. Growing a single plant carries a wildly disproportionate sentence of up to five years in prison.

That is an insane statute that the CRC has not touched. Full legalization of home cultivation, by contrast, would alleviate supply concerns and make the delays in approving over-the-counter sales much more bearable.

New Jersey dodged a bullet by re-electing Murphy since Jack Ciattarelli opposed legalization outright. It helps to keep everything in perspective — even if it ends up taking half a decade to legalize it, at least it ends up legal.

What is especially frustrating, though, is seeing how many municipalities have outright banned cannabis dispensaries from operating. More than 70 percent of the state's municipalities are passing up millions of dollars in tax revenue and thousands of new jobs in favor of 1970s-style "Reefer Madness" madness.

In pushing for a dispensary ban, Lacey Township Mayor Peter Curatolo said the town's residents "didn't vote for 17-year-olds to become drug users. They didn't vote for some overtaxed product so some MS-13 gangbanger can come in here and undercut" the legal market.

These dispensary bans often violate the will of the people, as most municipalities voted overwhelmingly for legal cannabis sales in 2020. The local bans pose a threat to local entrepreneurs as well. The CRC's regulations support the establishment of micro-businesses in the cannabis industry with fewer than 10 employees and 2,500 square feet of space.

At Stockton University, these micro-businesses are a great opportunity for someone just starting out, according to Rob Mejia, adjunct professor of cannabis studies at Stockton University — yes, that is a real field. That said, due to the wording of the state's regulations, the local bans may make it impossible for residents of those towns to apply for a micro-license.

Despite all of this frustration, the past few years have seen real progress. At least mere possession can no longer get you arrested, and hundreds of thousands of people who had their lives ruined by the war on drugs are getting their records expunged.

Still, when combining the ban on home grow with local bans on over-the-counter sales, cannabis might remain de-facto illegal in much of the state. If you cannot grow your own plants and only a few cities scattered across the state allow dispensaries, your options are pretty limited.

On the bright side, at least New Brunswick will be one of those cities. The city council amended the zoning code to allow three dispensaries, including one on Easton Avenue and two downtown.

Although the state government can seem distant, we have a lot of influence on the decisions of local governments. Ultimately it will be on the local level that New Jersey’s journey with legal weed proves to be a success or not.

Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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