New Jersey Deserves Marijuana Justice

To join Chris and other New Jersey residents in calling for action on marijuana reform, attend NORML’s rally and lobby day in Trenton, NJ on Monday, June 10th. Click here for more information and to RSVP.

A burning joint, pleasantly fragrant and wrapped in organic hemp paper, rests between my fingers. I am pondering the reality of war continuing against me for this choice. Like many, I bear scars.

Marijuana smokers and medical cannabis patients in New Jersey are to remain second class citizens. The two-ring, bipartisan political circus in Trenton has failed to deliver a promise of our freedom… again.

Now, we are essentially being held at gunpoint, by the police, until the very moment we are expected to pay out hundreds of millions in taxes. And that day could be as far out as 2022.

Legislators, under the leadership of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D- Gloucester), have frittered away every opportunity to come to our rescue. Legalization is on hold. Decriminalization isn’t really being entertained. Opposition pols, like Senator Ronald Rice (D-Newark), introduced a bill that would attempt to force us cannabis consumers into drug treatment if the cops catch us with a few grams.

We get the message this time; loud and clear: Ending injustice is not a priority.

Police departments from Hoboken to Cape May are gearing up to have a field day this summer. Young adults age 18-29, people of color, and tourists are targeted for marijuana arrests.

Prosecutors will face a glut of cases in the fall. A lucrative handcuffs-to-treatment pipeline of unlucky young cannabis consumers is already flowing.

Cannabis industry lobbyists have actually confided to me that they think NJ’s increasing possession arrests (more than 32,000 per year as of 2016) help their cause. I disagree. Emphatically.

Everyone talking about the money that comes with legalization –  profits, taxes, stock launches – should be more worried about the welfare of their customers. We can’t spend any of our disposable income on marijuana if we’re all on supervision.

Right now, our Garden State is putting 90 people into handcuffs every day for less than 50 grams of weed; more than for all other drugs, combined. For every single person behind those numbers, this is the start of a hugely negative experience in their lives; something that could take years to fix.

While the expungement bills offer a good start at repairing some of the damage, it seems like a backward effort when the very same records are still being generated at such prodigious rates.

It’s difficult not to be a cynical stoner after my experience in Trenton over the last few weeks.

Politicians dropped press releases on Friday afternoons followed by numerous last-minute bill amendments, then lightning-fast hearings and floor votes.

Declan O’Scanlon (R-Red Bank) was promising home cultivation for medical patients. Annette Quijano (D-Hudson) was floating $50 civil fines for possession. Others were touting clean slates for weed.

I put on my suit and prepared testimony for a rainy Monday session. There was no chance at appearing before three committees in both chambers, all happening almost simultaneously. It was a joke for a citizen. For top-dollar lobbyists though, it was like Christmas.

After the fast flurry of paper was over, home cultivation was gone, civil fines did not have a Senate sponsor, and expungements were on hold.

Meanwhile, huge sections from the full weed legalization bill (S2703) were cut, copied, and pasted into a bill addressing medical marijuana regulatory concerns (A10) – The Jake Honig Act, named after a severely ill boy who died last year. Jake’s bill had actually been moving steadily through both chambers since 2018. Now it’s been hijacked.

Right under the noses of voters, Sweeney and the Assembly Majority pulled off an impressively fast bait-and-switch.

Utilizing S2703’s (the full legalization bill’s) language a new Cannabis Regulatory Commission will be created. The decade-old medical cannabis program will also be taken away from the NJ Department of Health, itself managed by Governor Phil Murphy’s appointees. It seemed like a political one-two-punch.

The pragmatic tweaks to former Governor Chris Christie’s restrictive program rules contained within A10 became side-notes. Now, Jake’s bill is more about complex corporate structuring, grandfathering provisions for the current medical marijuana operating permit holders, and the start of larger-scale, wholesale production. Some lobbyists said it was the groundwork for adult-use.

From my view, it was a total giveaway to the heavily salivating cartel of corporate cannabis operators who’ve been parked on just six permits all these years. Many have deep political connections.

For instance, several former Christie appointees still own a medical cannabis garden and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) – the Majority Whip – serves as a shareholder and an attorney for state-regulated dispensaries in NJ and several other states.

And yet, Sweeney and other top NJ Democrats have been stalling legalization since Gov. Phil Murphy was elected in 2016. We’ve been told, ad nauseum, there weren’t enough votes to pass a bill regulating cannabis with a separate commission. It sailed through an Assembly floor 65-5-6, and then easily won Senate approval.

Now, some in Trenton are threatening to send a non-binding ballot question on legalization to voters before they make a move. Bring it.

We, the cannabis consumers of New Jersey, welcome a chance to help end harassment, discrimination, and pure injustice. We are also likely to replace many long-time incumbents during our surge to the polls.

Marijuana prohibition is a tragedy of policy. Two state legislatures, Vermont and Illinois, have ended it. The outright oppression of increasing arrests demands that New Jersey be next.

If this legislature can’t deliver, we will smoke them out of office.

Chris Goldstein is a 20-year marijuana legalization activist with NORML; columnist, educator, Quaker meditation practitioner, and fisherman from South Jersey. Twitter @freedomisgreen