N.J. could legalize marijuana as early as 2018, Senate president says

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Carrie Roberts, an employee at the Medicine Man dispensary in Denver, spoke to Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset), Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (D-Monmouth) during their trip to Colorado last week. (Photo: courtesy of Senate Majority Office)

By Susan K. Livio

TRENTON — Legalized marijuana could be “a game-changer” for New Jersey’s economy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Thursday, declaring his intent to help change the law as soon as the next governor takes office in 2018.

Fresh off their trip to Colorado to see how the legal marijuana industry works, Sweeney and a group of state lawmakers told reporters Thursday they were impressed with how regulated, safe and profitable this new cash crop has been for the Rocky Mountain state.

The law won’t change while Gov. Chris Christie remains in office. The Republican governor has vowed to veto a legalization bill, and has said he suspects that medical marijuana, legal since the day before he took office in 2010, is a back-door path to recreational pot. Christie’s term expires in January 2018.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who led the delegation to Denver and Boulder from Saturday to Wednesday, said recreational marijuana has created nearly 29,000 jobs, revitalized the economy of some struggling blue-collar towns and reduced the number of drug possession arrests by about 80 percent.

Colorado state officials have reported that $135 million in tax revenue was generated by the medical and recreational marijuana programs combined in 2015.

“I’m concerned that we are missing out, but the guy down the hall doesn’t care,” Scutari said, referring to the governor.

“And, the sky hasn’t fallen,” added Scutari, the sponsor of a bill legalizing cannabis sales and possession. “These are neighborhoods you would be proud to say you represented or lived in.”

Recreational pot works in Colorado: lawmaker

Recreational pot works in Colorado: lawmaker

Five things a state senator learned about marijuana legalization from his recent trip to Colorado.

Sweeney, (D-Gloucester) may have been even more enthused about the trip, which included meetings with public health officials and lawmakers business owners, and visits to dispensaries and manufacturers.

“I was on board before we went, but I am absolutely sold that this industry can be regulated. It’s safe, it’s well managed. Colorado has done an amazing job,” Sweeney said.

“This is a game changer for the state,” he continued. “I’m committed to it. We are going to have a new governor in January 2018. As soon as the governor gets situated we are all here and we intend to move quickly on it.”

Kennedy.pngAssemblyman Jim Kennedy (D-Union) inspects a display case at GroundSwell Cannabis Boutique in Denver. (Photo Courtesy of Senate Majority Office)

Phil Murphy, the only Democrat who has announced he is running for governor next year, has publicly said he support marijuana legalization.

Scutari said when he introduces the marijuana legalization bill, he will look to merge the regulation of the recreation and existing medicinal program, which serves about 9,500 people, according to the state Health Department.

He would eliminate the sales tax on medicinal sales, noting that no other medicine is taxed. Scutari predicted once recreational marijuana is available, the exorbitant cost of an ounce of cannabis – about $500 – would drop. An ounce in Denver cost about $250, the lawmakers said.

Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who attended the trip, said he hasn’t decided whether he would vote yes or no to legalize the drug.

“The biggest takeaway from the is trip marijuana is no joke — it’s a serious policy discussion.”

“We grilled people out there,” including police officers and state regulators and elected officials. “There’s very little downside.”

A poll by Quinnipiac University last November said the majority of Coloradans don’t object to legal pot.

Voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2013 and cannabis has been legal since 2014.

The majority, 53 percent of the 1,262 people polled, said it has benefitted Colorado and 39 percent said it was a regrettable mistake. Women were less accepting than men, with 45 percent saying it was a good thing and 47 percent said it was a bad thing. A total of 60 percent of males said they approved compared to 32 percent who disapproved.

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