(Trenton, NJ)--Each year New Jersey sends about 22,000 people to jail for smoking pot. Waging such a punitive drug policy is costly: annually we spend $127,000,000 clogging up our jails and legal system in the name of marijuana prohibition.
But put those eye-popping numbers aside for a second. Also, try to forget the racial disparity in pot arrests which see black residents nearly 3x more likley to get busted for pot than their white neighbors. For me, the most compelling reason to legalize marijuana in New Jersey -- ostensibly for recreational purposes -- is for the medical marijuana patients who've been ill-served by the New Jersey's highly-politicized medical marijuana program.
"(Gov. Chris Christie) has put significant roadblocks in the way of the state’s medical marijuana program. In the four years since the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was signed into law, only a few hundred patients have obtained medical marijuana here. New Jersey’s population includes more than 25,000 hospice patients, along with tens of thousands of HIV/AIDS patients, cancer patients, glaucoma patients and others who would qualify for marijuana therapy, but who simply cannot legally obtain it."
If you're a US combat veteran with PTSD, or a 2-year-old child with epilepsy and your doctor recommends cannabis, you're outta luck. According to Chris Christie's Department of Health, those illnesses simply aren't grave enough to to expand NJ's narrow list of qualifying conditions. Again, likely for purely political reasons. Repeated attempts to reform NJ's medical marijuana program have met Chris Christie's veto pen. Last December Christie told reform-minded types to just give up already. "I'm done expanding the medicinal marijuana program under any circumstances,” he said emphatically.
Why all the politics, Governor?
With one eye on the White House and another on his carefully choreographed tough-as-nails, law-and-order persona, Chris Christie has done everything in his power to sabotage legal access to medical marijuana in this state. Presumably he reckoned any evidence of progress on social issues like medical marijuana would damage his hopes in a GOP presidential primary. It's not a hard conclusion to draw since everyone and their brother knows Chris Christie wants to be President. And it's hardly a surprise that Christie would destroy something he didn't like for political purposes. It's not just medical marijuana. It's kinda what he does.
That said, barely a fortnight into his second term, Chris Christie's no longer the only game in town, a notion that would have been unthinkable six months ago. With his reputation quickly going down the toilet as the #BridgeGate and Sandy subpoenas continue to fall, the days of Gov. Christie strutting around like he owns the place are over. The strut is long gone. Now the once nightly Governor Christie just looks sad.
Christie's sudden and unexpected political neutering presents the perfect opportunituy for cannabis reform activists to end marijuana prohibition. NJ Senator Nick Scutari felt the same way which is why he's poised to sponsor a bill to legalize modest amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use.
Such a move, says Scutari, "will end the unnecessary enforcement of these laws that needlessly put people behind bars and disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. It will allow law enforcement to spend its limited resources on the prevention of serious crimes in our towns across our state without having to chase around these petty crimes."
And if Chris Christie veto'd it?
"We'll continue and start a dialogue with the administration that's in place now or any subsequent administrations," Scutrai said. "This effort could take some period of time."
Any why not? For the time being, Chris Christie lacks the bandwidth to wage the sort of hyper-politicized counteroffensive he'd like too on this and any other issue. Clearly he's got tricker issues to deal with such as rescuing his career and reputation from ruin. Ironically, part of me kinda wants Chris Christie to veto a bill to legalize marijuana. First of all it would make him more unpopular than he currently is, and secondly, overriding such a veto would be incredibly satisfying, especially for folks who smoke marijuana for medical purposes. (Besides, with the Governor's lieutenants dropping like [subpoena'd] flies, who's gonna lean on the legislature to prevent a Christie override of, well, anything?)
It (always) takes a Village
Right now, a coalition is coming together to end marijuana prohibition in New Jersey. Udi Ofer, Executive Director ACLU of New Jersey expressed his organization's desire to hopefully take a leadership role:
"A large majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized, taxed and regulated. And not all communities are treated alike when it comes to marijuana enforcement. Despite similar usage rates among whites and blacks, black New Jerseyans are disproportionately arrested for marijuana. New Jersey spends more than $127 million a year to pay for a marijuana criminalization system that a majority of New Jerseyans do not support. Now's the time to tax, regulate and legalize marijuana for personal use."
The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) appears to be part the juggernaut as well citing benefits for medical and recreational users, alike.
"There are deep flaws in access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients in the state currently due to the Governor's impediments," said Evan Nison, Executive Director NJ NORML, "and the 22,000 otherwise law-abiding citizens who are getting arrested for marijuana every year."
Although recent polls show most Americans favor in of legalization it's hard to know the best route to legalization (courts, legislation, referendum?) to take first, it being such early stages and all. But stay tuned, the fight to legalize marijuana is about to begin in earnest in New Jersey. And with any luck, making it happen will be fun and intriguing to watch.
Jay Lassiter is a board member of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey. You can follow his occasionally witty musings on Twitter @jay_lass
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