A New Jersey lawmaker announced a bill Monday that would legalize marijuana, tax it and use the revenue to pay to fix the state’s roads and bridges. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) said he has never smoked marijuana personally. But Scutari has proposed legislation that would legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in New Jersey for those who are 21 or older. The proposed legislation even allows people to grow limited amounts of pot.
“It will bring marijuana out of the underground market, where it can be controlled, regulated, and taxed just as alcohol has been for decades,” Scutari said. The motivation, Scutari said, is the amount of tax dollars Colorado has projected it will generate after recreational marijuana was legalized in that state this year. The projection totals over $100 million. The New Jersey bill calls for a 7 percent tax on marijuana, which would be sold at designated stores just like alcohol is.
Under Scutari’s plan, which also is being introduced in the state Assembly, 70 percent of the state’s tax revenue from pot would go to a transportation fund. State officials have been wrestling with how to pay for infrastructure upgrades. “As we’ve seen, trying to get a gasoline tax enacted in this state looks to be an even tougher measure,” Scuatari said. Another 20 percent of the sales tax revenues would go toward drug enforcement, and 10 percent to women’s health.
Scutari also said allowing adults to legally buy marijuana to use recreationally would curb the drug sales-fueled crime that grips several New Jersey cities and reduce the number of people who get criminal records for pot possession. He also said regulators could ensure the safety of the pot people buy legally. And he said the state would save more than $100 million annually if police and courts didn’t have to deal with marijuana as a crime. But Diane Litterer, the director of the New Jersey Prevention Network, said money should not be a factor and argued that marijuana is not harmless.
“It’s around 9 percent of the general population becomes addicted,” Litterer said. Litterer claimed about one in six kids become addicted to pot, and said legalizing marijuana – which some have long argued is a gateway drug – will make kids think it is acceptable to smoke it. “It actually introduces industries that are then promoting to our youth and other vulnerable populations within our communities,” Litterer said. But some residents said legalized marijuana would not necessarily mean dire consequences.
“I don’t think it’s going to lead to more drug abuse,” said Dorothy Resinger of Union, N.J., “because if people want the drugs, they can find them on the street.” Many others were supportive of the idea. “It’s already out in the streets, tax it, make the money off of it,” one man said. “Anybody doing it, why put them in jail,” said another. “There are a lot of worse things in the world than marijuana,” said another. “I feel drinking is way worse than marijuana and that’s not illegal, so I don’t see why marijuana should be.”
And legalizing marijuana for recreational use has no chance of happening anytime soon in the Garden State. Gov. Chris Christie, who would have to sign the bill into law, opposes it. “I will not decriminalize marijuana, I will not permit recreational use and I will not legalize marijuana because I think it’s the wrong message to send to the children in this state and to young adults,” Christie said. Scutari acknowledged that opposition from Gov. Chris Christie could seriously hinder it but pointing out, “He’s not going to be governor forever.”
New Jersey already allows medical marijuana, but its law for that program is perhaps the nation’s most restrictive. Christie last year signed a law making some changes to the program, including selling edible forms of cannabis to children who qualify. But he said at the time he would not liberalize the law any farther. Some also question the timing of the legislation, coming as Christie faces the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal and is seen as being weak.
Scutari said he does not expect his bill to be adopted quickly. He said it will get a public hearing within months if it is referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. As part of the legislation, he said local governments would be able to further regulate or ban legal pot sales. But he said he’s considering giving towns the ability to impose their own taxes on marijuana as a way to encourage them to allow it. In addition to Colorado, Washington state also has laws legalizing recreational marijuana sales.
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