TRENTON – Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli said he would push for a voter referendum to repeal marijuana legalization, if he’s elected governor and its rollout proves to be problematic.

In a debate on New Jersey 101.5, Ciattarelli said the program is off to a shaky start.

“I’m all for decriminalization, but now we have outright legalization. But I will tell you, I don’t think this is what the people of New Jersey signed up for,” said Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman making his second bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

“Take a look at the bill that was passed,” he said. “We have basically handcuffed our local police, who previously were allowed to go up to teenagers who they smelled weed or alcohol, confiscate it and call the parents. Now they cannot. This isn’t what the people of New Jersey signed up for. We only made the job of local police harder with the bill that Democrats have passed.”

Voters last November overwhelmingly endorsed the approval of adult-use recreational marijuana, when 67% of voters supported it in a referendum. It was approved by wide margins in all 21 counties.

“I did not support the ballot referendum last November. It’s been approved by the people of New Jersey, which means the only way to remove it would be to put it back on the ballot,” Ciattarelli said. “As governor, my first term, if this rollout of recreational marijuana as legalized now is a failure, I will advocate for it to go back on the ballot. We can reverse that decision.”

Hirsh Singh, a South Jersey engineer making his second bid for governor, said he would proceed with legalization and that people should be allowed to grow marijuana plants at home as a counter to relying on corporate-owned dispensaries.

“I think that the model that we saw in California is the worst model possible,” Singh said. “Let’s make sure we don’t follow it.”

“Prohibition of marijuana causes black markets to really infest our schools because there’s a profit motive,” he said. “But what we saw in California is they used a corporate model for marijuana, which really increased the price, which made it today have the largest black market for marijuana in the entire globe. That is a tragedy. It’s the exact opposite of all intents and purposes.”

Singh said marijuana should be regulated like alcohol and that the proceeds should pay for police pensions.

“We need to get our law enforcement not to have to go after these real trivial type of issues, and I think that we need to focus our efforts more on more dangerous narcotics that are out there,” Singh said. “… We need to move in a direction to remove it from prohibition.”

Asked to clarify that he would continue with legalization, Singh affirmed that.

“Yes, but without corporate,” Singh said. “A not corporate marketplace. I want it to be – people can grow it in their own backyards. Let’s remove it being a special thing.”

The primary is June 8. In addition to Ciattarelli and Singh, there are two other candidates that didn’t qualify for the state-sanctioned debate: Brian Levine and Philip Rizzo.

Ciattarelli and Singh touched on a wide range of issues in the hour-long debate, which also featured a number of personal attacks in which they called each other liars and said their opponent would hurt the chances of other down-ballot Republicans seeking others offices in November.

ON TRUMP: Former President Donald Trump has been a recurring theme in the race, just as he remains in Republican politics nationally. Singh has said he was inspired by Trump to enter politics, while Ciattarelli has sometimes been critical of him.

“Donald Trump was the greatest president of my lifetime and probably for many people’s lifetimes, everyone who is alive today," said Singh, who likened Ciattarelli to Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, saying they should be thrown out for stabbing Trump in the back.

Ciattarelli said Trump remains the standard-bearer for the Republican Party – though added that’s always true of former presidents and governors, including Chris Christie in New Jersey, until a new candidate from the party wins that office.

Ciattarelli says he didn’t support Trump for president in 2015 because he was backing Christie, believing it would be good if New Jersey’s governor became president.

“I supported Donald Trump’s policies," Ciattarelli said. "He played hardball with China. He won the war on ISIS. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He was tough and successful on border security. His economy was great. And he appointed conservative justices.”

ON EDUCATION: Though the school-aid formula has been upheld by the state Supreme Court, Ciattarelli said he thinks it’s unconstitutional. He’d seek to replace it as governor with one he calls flatter and more equitable.

“Now, what I’m thinking about is a school funding formula along the lines of X for every English-speaking student, Y for every English-language learner and the state taking over the cost of special education," Ciattarelli said.

Ciattarelli says 70% of state aid for schools goes to less than 10% of districts. However, those districts are generally the larger ones – and those with the highest concentrations of poverty.

In response to a question from a debate listener about curbing the influence of the New Jersey Education Association, Singh pointed to his plan to let parents use their child’s share of state aid to pay for tuition at any school they want.

“The only way we’re going to put the NJEA on notice and put them in check is with school choice because right now they have a monopoly," he said.

Singh says each student would be allocated $8,600 to spend on tuition. Another $2,000 per student would go toward a property tax cut.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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