NJ Takes Step Closer to Legal Marijuana

December 3, 2018
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By Chris Rotolo |

TRENTON – After months of discussion, false starts and delays, New Jersey took a giant step toward the legalization of recreational marijuana Monday, but two local legislators say there’s still work to be done.

Following a four-hour public hearing in Trenton, committees from both the Senate and Assembly voted 7-4 and 7-2, respectively, to advance a bill that could pave the way for legal weed in the Garden State.

Though the bill now awaits a full vote in the state legislature, state Sens. Vin Gopal (D-11) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-13) say they aren’t convinced it’s strong enough to pass in its current form.

“There’s a lot of discussion that has yet to be had and I don’t think the votes are there yet,” O’Scanlon said in a Nov. 27 interview with The Two River Times. “Both sides need to take a breath and focus on getting answers to legitimate concerns and questions and then legislate on those answers, whether those answers perpetuate our beliefs or not.”

O’Scanlon was a “no” vote at Monday’s hearing, but denounced what he called “hyperbolic anarchy, chaos, death and destruction” preached by anti-legalization groups.

“I didn’t vote ‘no’ because I wanted to give credibility to the over-the-top pronouncements of naysayers. But there are deliberative questions that I’m still receiving and they deserve to be answered,” O’Scanlon said.

O’Scanlon specifically cited law enforcement concerns posed by Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden, a point Gopal agreed needs to be investigated further.

“Our local law enforcement officials have legitimate concerns about resources and training and we have to make sure those concerns are met with answers. We have to make sure this is done the right way. It can’t be rushed,” Gopal said.

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Gopal voted in favor of the bill Monday.

During Monday’s hearing Gopal expressed his anger that some constituents in his district can’t find work 15 years after a nonviolent marijuana arrest and conviction. In a Nov. 27 interview, Gopal expanded on this, laying out the dollars and cents of the situation.

“When you examine money spent on law enforcement, look at what we’re spending to lock up nonviolent criminals. We’re talking about billions of dollars. I don’t think I’m alone when I say the money can be better spent on going after rapists and other violent offenders,” Gopal said.

Gopal called the war on drugs an “utter failure,” describing a strong black market for drug sales in the state and an unnecessarily large tax burden on state residents due to prisons clogged with nonviolent offenders. “The war on drugs hasn’t done much to solve the problem. We have to be better and smarter about this,” he added.

Gopal and O’Scanlon agreed a piece of this bill should empower local municipalities to decide for themselves about the placement of dispensaries and grow houses within city lines.

“I think we have successfully eliminated any such discussion of any attempt to force a municipality’s hand,” O’Scanlon said.

“If a town passed a resolution, we have to respect that, and there’s nothing that says there has to be a facility in that town,” Gopal added. “We have to look at the mistakes made in Colorado and California, learn from those mistakes, and try to have the best form of legalization here.”

O’Scanlon added he hopes local government officials “are smart enough” to understand they should not lump the use of recreational and medical marijuana together.

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“To conflate the two sends a very inaccurate and destructive message,” O’Scanlon said, adding that Monday’s hearing, in addition to advancing the recreational legalization bill, also moved two other bills aimed at making the medicinal marijuana law more consumer-friendly while expanding the economic reach of the medical market.

This article was first published in the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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