Between the Lines

What does legalized marijuana really mean?

The big question about a referendum to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is how much impact the 2020 presidential election will have on voters’ choices.

This is an important campaign promise that Gov. Phil Murphy made when running for governor in 2017. But there have been significant roadblocks, especially from some members of the African-American community.

Some are concerned about the effect legalization will have on poorer neighborhoods.

Although some experts disagree, historically marijuana has been considered a gateway drug, meaning that those who used it may progress to using heavier drugs.

But since cigarettes and alcohol also fall under the category of gateway drugs and they are legal, many argue legalizing marijuana won’t lead to more significant harder drug use.

More dangerous by far as a gateway drug, these people claim, are various kinds of painkillers prescribed legally and to which people become addicted.

A change of view?

For many older residents who grew up in an era when marijuana use was seen as a great evil, a vote to legalize it will require a significant change in outlook. And you can expect a massive campaign by legalization supporters to convince them to approve the resolution. This will include an important re-education of leaders in urban districts, who still believe marijuana poses a threat to their constituents.

For some legislators, however, the issue delaying legalization of marijuana involves expunging the criminal records of those convicted prior to the change of law.

Many of those serving time for minor marijuana offenses were convicted under a law that set a range from a few grams to a number of pounds.

A blanket expungement would mean those convicted for the greater amounts would also go free. Politically, legislators in more conservative sections of the state would be hard pressed to expunge people who were likely dealing rather than merely using.

So before the state can legalize marijuana, the legislature would have to change the law to allow people with minor offenses to be expunged.

Some of these legislators claim there is not enough time to change these laws to allow the referendum to be put onto the November 2019 election. How the issue will play out, in what promises to be one of the most hotly contested national elections in 2020, remains unclear.

Who benefits really?

Another concern involves the impact of the economic benefit many expect to come from the new marijuana industry.

Murphy and many other legislative leaders see legalization as a windfall in tax revenues, something that can help bolster the state budget and allow the state to move ahead with its progressive agenda.

But legalizing marijuana may also leave many small potential entrepreneurs out of the gold rush, due to the massive investment needed.

This is one issue that was raised at a recent conference in Jersey City, where those peering into the future hope to find a way not to exclude small business people.

A group of such entrepreneurs – led by a former convicted marijuana dealer – developed a consortium in California as an umbrella organization that would allow small business people to get their fair share of the pie. It’s unclear if such an organization is being planned here.

Another significant issue will be how the state will govern who will get a license to sell marijuana.

Is the state going to set up the same odious regulations that they implemented in Atlantic City regarding gambling and casinos? Will people with previous convictions be banned from the business?

Such rules in Atlantic City created a tale of two cities, where Pacific Avenue became an invisible wall between the haves and the have nots.

Local impacts are important

Many towns such as Secaucus have voted not to allow marijuana sales in their communities. This raises questions as to how approval of the referendum will affect those towns. Jersey City banned distribution, but only in order to control where sales outlets would go. But it is unclear what impact the referendum would have on those towns that banned pot outright. Would potential outlets apply for licenses directly to the state in those towns, and open businesses regardless of local government wishes?

Marijuana legalization would put immense pressure on these communities, just as legal alcohol has on dry communities such as Ocean City and Rutherford.

In many ways, this is an issue similar to those presented by short-term rentals and ride share services. The traditional rules may no longer apply, and new rules need to be developed to help steer communities through unfamiliar territory.

But it’s important that whatever the state does in implementing the legalization that it communicate what the impact will be on those communities willing to embrace the change and those which are concerned about what the change means. The regulations need to be very clear to everybody concerned.

Gov. Murphy, desperate to legalize marijuana, is doing what is called an end run in football, going around the opposition to seek approval directly from the people. But this move also strips away some of the safeguards of the legislative process. While it’s most likely voters who will approve legalization, the devil will be in the details as to who benefits from the measure.