New Jersey may become the 9th state in the US to legalize recreational cannabis use, thanks to a new bill announced by Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D). The Garden State has allowed medical marijuana use since 2010, but this will be the second time Scutari has attempted to make recreational use legal after an unsuccessful attempt in 2014. If passed, Scutari’s legislation would be a big victory for harm reduction by reducing black market demand, eliminating costly and destructive marijuana-related incarcerations, and very likely reducing serious drug addiction and overdoses related to substances like prescription opioids. Although the bill is not perfect and it does have some loud opposition, it represents an important step forward for sensible drug policy reform.
Not Quite the Garden State
While Scutari’s bill would create a recreational marijuana program for licensed growers and wholesalers to operate, it does prohibit the growing of cannabis plants by private citizens. Most marijuana advocates would agree that making recreational pot use legal is a huge step forward, but bills that prohibit people from growing their own plants have been criticized for putting too much power in the hands of corporations. In an interview we had with Jeff Kundert of the American Cannabis Association last year, he suggested that “grow, use, and share” laws akin to those in Washington D.C. were the best way forward. Kundert suggested that laws which allow people to grow a few personal plants and share with their friends are far more egalitarian and act as a bulwark against ‘big cannabis’ monopolizing the cannabis industry. That being said, Scutari’s bill seems to be well-intentioned and focused on eliminating the biggest harm that backwards drug laws have on citizens. As Scutari said recently when discussing the bill: “The drug laws in this country prohibiting the use and possession of marijuana have failed… It’s time to end the detrimental effect these archaic laws are having on our residents and our state”
The biggest detractor of Scutari’s new bill is exiting New Jersey Governor and once-presidential hopeful Chris Christie, who just weeks ago called efforts of legalize marijuana “total stupidity”. Christie, who chairs the Trump administration’s Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission and clings to the belief that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ appears to be woefully out of touch with both public opinion and the scientific facts surrounding legal cannabis use. For example, a new study from the University of California, San Diego found that in states where medical marijuana was legalized, hospitals reported a 23% decrease in incidents related to prescription opioid abuse and a 13% decrease in overdoses. These seem like important facts for someone in charge of an opioid and drug abuse commission to know about.
Christie’s bewildering approach to cannabis is indicative of how out of touch he is with both drug research and his constituents. While marijuana legalization enjoys the support of 61% of Americans according to CBS News, recent polls have illustrated that Christie is one of the least liked governors of the last few decades with disapproval ratings topping 75%. While the criticisms of Christie’s take on cannabis are vast, they are perhaps best summarized by Erik Altieri, Executive Director of the drug reform nonprofit NORML, who spoke on this topic recently:
“Governor Christie has 0% credibility on drug policy… When it comes to cannabis’ relationship to opioids from real-world experience, not bluster and rhetoric, states that have medicinal and recreational cannabis laws on the books see lower rates of overdose, lower rates of use, and lower rates of opioids being prescribed to patients. It’s important to point out that Christie will be gone by the end of this year, and that so far, every single Democratic candidate for governor and a number of Republican candidates have come out in support of legalization. So it’s really a question of not if but when in New Jersey. And there’s nothing Chris Christie can do about it.”