Local leaders are asking for community feedback and offering expert information on the statewide recreational marijuana law, which comes to a vote next week.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 20, 2019
With a historic vote on New Jersey’s adult recreational cannabis bill expected in Trenton next week, communities across the state are preparing for the possible impacts of legalized marijuana.
Given that the final draft of the bill still hasn’t made it to the floor of the legislature, and that a host of consequences both anticipated and unintended may arise from its passage, elected officials are looking to connect with residents on the issue as they develop local policy.
Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante, who will host and moderate the forum, said the event is designed to be informative without politicians taking sides on the issue.
“The goal of the forum is not to take a position pro or con,” Passanante said. “It’s purely to provide accurate information to the public and answer as many questions as we can that they may have.
“We felt it would be important to us to best educate our public and then try to find out what does our public want,” he said.
Panelists include attorneys William J. Caruso of Archer Law and Richard T. Wells of the Garty Law Firm, Berlin Police Chief Leonard Check, psychiatrist David Nathan, and NAACP spokesperson Richard Todd Edwards.
They will offer expertise on the potential impacts of the recreational cannabis bill from the perspectives of public safety, economics, public health, and restorative justice.
“Our residents really don’t have a full understanding of what [the law]means to them as a resident of New Jersey, a business owner, a parent, a member of the community,” Passanante said.
“It’s our obligation to share as much accurate information with them as we can so they can at least feel like their local government is on top of this,” he said. “They need to reciprocate by telling us what’s on their minds.”
If enacted, the law most significantly would legalize the use of recreational marijuana by adults 21 and older, as well as providing means for establishing ways to cultivate and retail it.
It would create rules around the packaging and distribution of cannabis, wipe out criminal records for certain prior convictions involving the substance, and could spur the re-sentencing of others.
But one of the biggest community conversations to be held is whether a municipality will permit cannabis retail operations within its limits. The pending legislation allows towns to choose whether or not to outlaw dispensaries within their borders for a set period of time.
That’s just one of the issues on which elected officials need to hear from their constituents before taking action, Passanante said.
“It’s going to be up to us locally to have that conversation,” he said.
“We have [the community’s]best interests at heart in whatever decisions we make, but they need to communicate to us what they want or don’t want, because ultimately, [each town is]going to have to vote as a governing body.”
Passanante likened the shifting stance on marijuana to transitioning out of prohibition-era alcohol laws. Even if a town decides to outlaw cannabis dispensaries within its borders, it still must comply with broader state regulations. Some of that will come in the form of retraining police, but more of it will come in secondary impacts of enforcement.
“If I don’t have a [cannabis]space in my town, I don’t have an option to collect taxes on the revenue that’s generated, but I still have to deal with people driving through my town who might be under the influence,” Passanante said.
In advance of the forum, Passanante said the most frequently asked question he’s heard from residents involves the potential economic impact of the law, which isn’t simple to answer.
“They all want to know how much of an impact on their taxes this would be,” he said.
“There’s no question that there is the potential for economic growth as a result of a new industry coming into the state,” Passanante said. “The question becomes what happens to the money and where is it funneled.”
Psychiatrist David Nathan, who will appear on the panel, is the founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, an advocacy group dedicated to what he described as “the effective regulation of cannabis in the United States.”
Nathan’s group posits that the harms of cannabis prohibition as it’s been enforced for years far exceed the harms of its legal use by adults.
He hopes that strict regulation will limit access to the drug by minors while educating other at-risk populations, including pregnant women and people with certain forms of mental illness, about the dangers of its consumption.
“What is a safe activity for the vast majority of adults who engage in it is neither safe nor acceptable in minors,” Nathan said.
“By creating this legal distinction between adult and underage use, we’re showing a respect for the science and the sanctity of the law that we would want our children to emulate.”
The bill also offers an opportunity for the sale of recreational cannabis to be used to reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately policed under marijuana prohibition. Just how finely tuned those details can be is something that will be longer in coming, Nathan said.
“The part you can’t know about is the degree to which historically discriminated minorities will actually find themselves able to get good jobs and benefit from legalization,” he said.
“We want to ensure diversity in the industry, and we want some of the tax revenue to go into the education of kids, drug experts to help mitigate drugged driving, and reinvestment into communities affected by the drug war,” Nathan said.
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