Here's N.J. lawmaker's plan to legalize recreational marijuana after Christie leaves
TRENTON -- A state lawmaker introduced legislation on Monday that would legalize marijuana in New Jersey, saying he was laying the groundwork to pass a new law almost as soon as Gov. Chris Christie leaves office.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari's bill would make New Jersey one of a small but growing number of states where marijuana is legally sold. Scutari (D-Union) said the measure would generate at least $300 million in new tax revenue, which could be used to fund anything from opiate addiction treatment to women's health programs and transportation infrastructure.
Currently, marijuana is only legal for medical treatment of a tightly regulated group of ailments and sold at just a handful of dispensaries around the state.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor who has resisted any effort to decriminalize the drug in New Jersey, has called Scutari's plan "stupid." The drug also remains illegal at the federal level, and President Donald Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has taken a similarly hardline stance against legalization.
Scutari pointed to growing public support for legalization among New Jersey voters and said the bill would end the "failed war on marijuana" in the Garden State. Some 20,000 people are arrested each year for possession and enforcement disproportionately affects poor and minority communities, advocates for legalization say.
The Union County Democrat has long advocated for legalization, taking other top lawmakers on trips to Colorado, the first state in the U.S. to move toward regulating and taxing the drug, to see first-hand how it works.
"States that have legalized cannabis have not seen the doom and gloom scenarios that the critics had predicted," he told reporters at a Statehouse press conference on Monday.
According to a copy provided to NJ Advance Media on Monday, the measure would:
* Set up a recreational marijuana program in New Jersey, legalizing individual possession for those over the age of 21 of up to one ounce of marijuana; 16 ounces of products infused with the drug in solid form; 72 ounces in liquid form and seven grams of "marijuana concentrate."
* Create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement within the state Department of Law and Public Safety, which is overseen by the state attorney general, and direct that agency to set up regulations and licensure programs for growers and distributors within a year of the bill's passage.
* Decriminalize possession of up to 50 grams immediately, limiting fines to $100 until the regulated industry gets up and running and creating a system for some marijuana offenders to expunge their criminal records.
* Set up an "escalating" sales tax on the drug starting at seven percent in the first year, 10 percent in the second and jumping five percent each year after to a final tax rate of 25 percent.
* Prohibit growing marijuana at home -- a provision that drew criticism from a coalition of legalization advocates -- as well as ban its use in public.
According to a statement from Scutari's office, the bill would also give local governments "flexibility to enact local measures" allowing them to prohibit or more strictly regulate marijuana businesses in their towns.
Introduction of the bill is merely the first step of a long process that will include legislative hearings and votes in the Senate and Assembly. Scutari acknowledged it's unlikely the bill will pass while Christie remains in office but said he wanted to hold hearings quickly to lay a foundation of support.
"I've got a guy right down the hall there who doesn't want to pass it and is working hard against it, and he can be a tough adversary on occasion," Scutari said, referring to the governor. "So I've gotta do what I've gotta do to educate the members (of the Legislature)."
A spokesman for Christie declined to comment on the bill Monday. But Christie's term ends early next year, and most of the candidates vying to replace him have publicly embraced legalization, including all of the Democrats.
Scutari said he was pushing the bill while Christie is still governor to get it "ready within the first 100 days of a potential new governor's administration."
Its introduction was praised by advocates of legalization, who nonetheless had concerns about its finer points. Dianna Houenou, who serves as policy counsel for the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the measure "could potentially bring us one step closer to ending a civil rights crisis that has ensnared people of color and left a stain on New Jersey."
An ACLU report found African-Americans were nearly three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in New Jersey, despite similar rates of reported drug use among the two groups.
The ACLU is part of a coalition called New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, which includes groups such as Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and the state Municipal Prosecutors Association.
That coalition wants lawmakers to allow New Jerseyans to grow marijuana at home and to keep from over-regulating the marijuana industry and preventing those with criminal backgrounds due to drug offenses from being disqualified for licenses in the new system.