Can New Jersey Go From Prohibition to Legal Pot?

With anti-marijuana Governor Chris Christie's departure quickly approaching, advocates in the state are getting ready for full legalization

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been notoriously anti-marijuana. Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty

In 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was shaking hands with constituents at a diner when Brian Wilson, a young father, approached the governor and demanded to know why Christie would deny his two-year-old daughter potentially life-saving medicine.

"Please don't let my daughter die, Governor," Wilson yelled as Christie walked away. Wilson's daughter Vivian suffered from a potentially lethal form of epilepsy. Since New Jersey had become a medical marijuana state in 2010, she was eligible to get medical pot that would ease her seizures – but the Christie administration was holding up reforms that would make medical marijuana more accessible. The family ended up leaving New Jersey for Colorado.

Christie's position on marijuana has not evolved much since then, even as more and more Americans think pot should be legal. In May, the Governor doubled down on the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug. At a drug abuse conference, Christie railed against legalization, calling proponents of legal pot "crazy liberals" who wanted to "poison our children" and the tax revenue from legal pot "blood money."

"He's uneducatable," says Marianne Bays, a pro-weed activist and industry analyst with Kalyx Development Inc., a real estate investment trust for cannabis business operators. "He has a bias. Every step of the way he's pushed back on marijuana legalization."

But Christie is leaving office in January. And with him gone, legalization advocates seem confident that New Jersey can enact a law that paves the way for a legal market. That would make New Jersey the first state to go from punishing the use and sale of pot with jail, to treating weed like alcohol: a drug people over 21 can enjoy, produced and sold in a tightly regulated, taxed marketplace. It would be a game changer in a state where police arrest more people for pot than any other crime; where a single joint can land you in jail and lead to a permanent criminal record. 

But it seems like things could soon change. New Jersey State Senator Nicholas P. Scutari – who introduced a bill that would regulate the growth, sale and use of pot – says legalization in the state is long past due. "I think it's been the right time for quite a long time," Scutari says. "Now there's finally momentum and public support. We're educating members of the legislature and the gubernatorial candidates. Prohibition has hurt our neighborhoods, it's ruined street corners and it's increased crime around the country. With a regulated industry, you get jobs and tax revenue." 

Advocates hope New Jersey would save money by ending the prosecution of pot crimes and make money by taxing the newly legal industry – a boost to the state's economy, which hasn't exactly flourished since 2008. By most common estimates, the state spends $127 million per year punishing people for using pot. The bill - which allows adults over 21 to have one ounce of the drug or 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product but prohibits home growth - aims to flip that equation. According to New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, the state could rake in $300 million a year through a marijuana sales tax.  

"Maybe those savings could be put toward things like dealing with the opioid epidemic," Bays notes, a dig at Christie's vow to fight opioid addiction. "Or, on our roads and our infrastructure."

Legalization advocates say that these common-sense economic benefits might sway Republican lawmakers and the future Governor.

Although no GOP legislators have officially signed on to the bill, Scaturi is confident he can line up their support. He says a few Republicans he took on a recent trip to Colorado seemed open. "There is currently a partisan divide, but we're going to bridge it."

If the bill gets to the desk of New Jersey's next governor, full legalization might have a chance. The Democratic candidates all favor some form of legalization. The Republican candidates have been more hesitant, signaling they're open to decriminalization or expanding the medical marijuana program. And part of the strategy of putting the bill out there now is to create a groundswell of public support that might convince a Republican Governor to sign it.

One Republican fully in favor of legalization is Rob Cressen, former Executive Director of the New Jersey Republican State committee. Cressen used to run triathlons, until he developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – a painful condition that's left him in a wheelchair. Over the years, his doctors put him on a staggering array of painkillers. "I was taking, Percocet, Vicodin, morphine, I might be missing one," he says. The pills helped ease his pain, but also caused severe liver and kidney problems that put him in the hospital. When he got a prescription for medical marijuana, he says the boost to his health was remarkable. "It's a wonder," he says. "I am sleeping regularly, I have a better diet. I'm not taking or dependent upon opiates."

Cressen spends much of his time trying to convince fellow Republicans to stop being terrified of marijuana. His argument is simple: he thinks he'd be dead without it.

"If I continued taking the opioids and even the concentration of ibuprofen I was on, I would not be speaking to you today," Cressen says. Still, current restrictions on medical pot make it tough for a sick person like him to get his prescription. New Jersey has only five medicinal marijuana dispensaries, which is why he favors full-on legalization over the slow reforms to the state's medical pot program.

Widening access to medical pot is one goal of legalization. Another is to start to make up for the long history of racist policing of marijuana. In some New Jersey counties, blacks are more than four times as likely to get arrested for marijuana than whites, despite similar rates of use. Putting the bill out there now, despite Christie's vow to oppose it, gives social justice activists a chance to shape a future market in a way that gives back to communities of color and poor people. African-Americans are severely under-represented in states with legal pot, and social justice advocates don't want that to happen in New Jersey. 

"There's been an enormous disparate impact on communities of color, so you have to do something to repair that," says Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance. That includes automatic retroactive expungement and making sure people with felonies aren't banned from participating in the industry, she says. In its current form, the bill allows for people convicted of possession prior to the law to present a petition for expungement.

"That has a disproportionate racial impact because minorities are more likely to be barred," Scotti says. 

As the state waits for a consensus on reasonable marijuana policy, youth of color are getting sucked into the state's jails and prisons at alarming rates.

Kathy Wright, whose son became one of many African-American kids caught up in New Jersey's juvenile justice system at age 16, thinks the state has to do better for minority youth. "Getting wrapped up in the juvenile justice system can completely derail a child's life," she says. As Executive Director of the New Jersey Parents Caucus, Wright works with teens let down by poor mental health and substance use services, only to end up entangled in the state's criminal justice system. She thinks legalization can help. It would give police one less reason to target minorities and divert taxes to community programs.

"Legalizing and removing the criminalization of marijuana would allow us to put funding into much-needed community services," she says. Regardless of why someone ends up in jail, once they get out on probation, pot prohibition makes it more likely they'll break it and go back to jail.

"Legalization would make it more difficult to get caught up in the criminal justice system for something other states have legalized," Wright says.

That irony is not lost on Geo Henderson, 29, who faces eights years for allegedly selling pot. He already spent six months in jail and is out on bail, waiting to see if he can get a good plea deal. If he were to go to trial, he says, he might get 15 years. Henderson doesn't think it makes much sense that he's spent time in jail for pot, a booming business in some parts of the country.

"I'm hearing the Governor is the reason we aren't closer to legalization," he says "I feel like legalization would make it easier on everyone. We're one country. I don't get why I can literally drive to a different state and my situation would be different. It's ridiculous."