Should recreational marijuana be legalized in New Jersey?

The Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee heard hours of testimony on Monday about how legalizing pot would impact the economy of the Garden state, the criminal justice system, and the public health of citizens young and old.

Dan Pabon, an assemblyman from Colorado, told members of the panel legalizing weed in his state has had a positive impact.

“We have a 2.3 percent unemployment rate, we have the healthiest state in the nation, we have the most educated cities in the nation, the fastest growing cities, the largest growing property values and tourism is at record levels. I’m proud of my state of Colorado," he said.

Pabon said initially he had concerns about making cannabis legal, but tax revenue has been significant and additional funds have been generated to help fight crime.

“We just gave law enforcement $6 million just last year to focus specifically on black market activity," Pabon said.

He said criminals and cartels are now looking at what’s happening and saying “we have law enforcement that is well-funded, that can find us and take us out. Colorado is not a good place for us to exist.”

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said his organization is partnering with law enforcement, medical and civil rights communities “to work together to support the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana for adults.’

He said everyone needs to work together to endure “legalization of marijuana serves its intended purpose, to end a civil rights crisis.”

He said over the past decade, New Jersey has used its police officers “to make hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests with no positive outcome. Instead we’re left burdened by a trail of devastating consequences for already diminishing police resources.

He also said during the same stretch “we’ve spent more than $1 billion on arresting New Jerseyans for an activity that most people across the ideological spectrum agree should be legal.”

Sinha said up to 200,000 hours of law enforcement time is wasted every year on processing people on marijuana charges.

“Law enforcement resources across the state are already scarce, and should be focused on actually increasing public safety and building community trust rather than perpetuating needless injustices," Sinha said.

He said not all New Jersey communities are impacted equally by marijuana laws.

“Black New Jerseyans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white residents, despite research showing both groups using marijuana at equal rates," Sinha said.

He stressed the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana for adults “is a critical policy reform for New Jersey and the state should move towards its passage with through consideration for its racial justice implications on our communities.”

Other pro-marijuana advocates argued legalizing recreational pot would benefit those who use medicinal marijuana, and could help to create a whole new pharma industry in the Garden State focused on the medicinal value of cannabis.

But many groups and individuals also spoke out against the idea of legalized weed in New Jersey.

One opponent, Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana served in the Obama administration as the senior advisor to drug policy. He'd also served in the Bush and Clinton administrations.

He said his organization believes we need to look at decriminalization of pot and medicinal marijuana separately from the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational usage.

Sabet said in states where adult use of marijuana is permitted, “18- to 25-year-old use, in states like Colorado have skyrocketed, much higher than the national average.”

“The other troubling thing we’re seeing is the increase in arrests among African American and Hispanic youth in states like Colorado," he said.

He said though “we were promised marijuana legalization would bring social justice to our communities of color, in fact just the opposite has happened."

Sabet also said there is clear evidence that fatal and non-fatal car crashes have increased in states like Colorado since marijuana became legal, and testing drivers for marijuana is not simple and straightforward, like testing for alcohol.

For a variety of reasons, he said, a majority of national medical groups oppose the legalization of marijuana.

“We’re talking the American Medical Association, the American Association of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics — on and on and on,” he said.

He told members of the panel alcohol and tobacco pose more danger than marijuana “precisely because they’re legal, and they’re used in a much more heavy way from a public health point of view by an industry that wants to get rich.”

Col. Rick Fuentes, the former superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said recent data confirms “Colorado state patrol is witnessing higher rates of traffic fatalities for driving while drugged either directly involving or relating to marijuana .”

“The insurance institute for highway safety reported in June of 2017 that Colorado accident claims increased 14 percent after recreational sales began," he said.

He also told the panel “hospitals are seeing increased rates of marijuana in combination with alcohol in their toxicity reports.”

He said recent research shows marijuana combined with alcohol increases intoxication levels while diminishing driving skills.

“Also, Colorado Public Safety is seeing a disturbing increase in marijuana-related poisoning and hospital visits, particularly involving adolescents and toddlers," Fuentes said.

The committee is scheduled to hold additional marijuana public hearings next month at Rowan University, and at Bergen County Community College in May.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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