July 20, 2019 | 78° F

As marijuana legalization ensues, so too do concerns over impaired driving and federal laws among Rutgers students

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Police chiefs across the state are looking at new ways to discern the effects of driving while under the influence of marijuana as New Jersey moves closer toward legalizing the Schedule I drug. Some students feel driving under the influence of alcohol is a more pressing issue. PIXABAY

New Jerseyans have long toyed with the idea of legalizing marijuana in the Garden State. With Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) recent election, lawmakers have already introduced a bill which would legalize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for persons age 21 and over, according to bill S830 in the New Jersey State Legislature.

Murphy announced yesterday that New Jersey doctors can now recommend patients use medical marijuana to treat various forms of anxiety, chronic pain, migraines and Tourette's syndrome, according to an article from NJ Advance Media.

This is the first stage of Murphy's plan to expand medicinal use of cannabis services in the Garden State.

While some members of the community are excited for the possibility of New Jersey becoming the ninth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, others are concerned about the impact the drug could have on New Jersey’s motorways.

Recently, the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police (NJSACOP) stated its opposition to legalizing marijuana, according to NJ Spotlight. Due to safe-driving concerns and the lack of verifiable testing methods, some New Jersey law enforcement officials are worried that legalizing marijuana could increase the rate of accidents on New Jersey’s roads.

The NJSACOP will form a working group “comprised of law enforcement professionals charged with gathering input from community leaders and healthcare professionals,” which will begin to reexamine previous research and start a new conversation around the subject, according to its press release. It stated that there is currently not enough evidence to come to a solid conclusion regarding the long-term effects that legalizing marijuana could have on the state.

Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski of the NJSACOP said that despite an unclear understanding of data surrounding marijuanna use, there is still cause for concern among law enforcement officials, according to NJ Spotlight.

Even supporters of marijuana legalization agreed that evidence of the effects it could have is not necessarily clear. Anish Patel, a graduate student in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said the lack of research and federal law remains a hindrance on the push for legalization. 

“Without a federal rescheduling, a lift on the ban or some sort of movement at (the federal) level, it’s going to be really tough to do the research necessary,” Patel said.

Under the supervision of professor Ray Caprio, director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center, Patel has conducted interviews with municipal leaders throughout New Jersey to try and understand what a legalized market might look like across the state. 

The real issue is that federal law prevents universities like Rutgers from conducting the research necessary to determine what effects marijuana legalization would have on the state, Patel said. 

“We get a lot of money from the federal government in the form of grants, research opportunities, and if we’re using a federally controlled substance, illegally essentially under federal law, then we’re in a pretty tight spot,” Patel said.

Public officials and experts are not the only ones weighing in on the issue. Rutgers students carry strong opinions on marijuana and the effects that legalization could have on the University. 

Mei Chen, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said it is hypocritical for marijuana to remain illegal over safety issues while alcohol remains easily accessible. 

“Why aren’t we concerned about accidents cause by drinking and driving? If we are banning marijuana due to safe-driving concerns, then we really should have banned alcohol a long time ago, (sic)” Chen said. 

Other students think the issue is not as serious as some have made it out to be. 

Amanda Leifer, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, said that “students who chose to use these products are most likely going to be too high to want to get up off of the couches, so I don't think Rutgers will have such a big issue.” 

According to NJ Spotlight, a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that “(marijuana) users perceive their driving under the influence as impaired” and, as a result, tend to drive more cautiously, according to NJ Spotlight. 

Drivers tended to increase their following distance, decrease their speed and refuse to overtake other drivers on the road, the study reported. 

While evidence like the NIH study has been cited by marijuana activists, there is a growing body of evidence that marijuana legalization could potentially increase the number of accidents by drivers under the influence.

“The number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has risen sharply each year since 2013, more than doubling in that time ...,” The Denver Post reported

Despite fears that marijuana could increase the danger on New Jersey roadways, there are many people who feel the issues surrounding marijuana are far greater than road safety. 

Under the current system, students with arrest records can face stiff challenges in finding jobs, and some even run the risk of losing financial aid. 

Chen said she thinks it is wrong that for some of her friends, their futures remain in jeopardy under current laws. 

“Background checks often date back seven years and look through all the arrest records of individuals, and I believe it is a little silly if an individual is not able (to) obtain jobs because they have an arrest record of marijuana usage,” she said. 

While students risk big fines and arrest records from getting caught with marijuana, they are not the only group that could benefit from more relaxed drug laws. One of the biggest factors in the push to legalize, are issues of social justice and systemic racism.

“Legalizing, decriminalizing, those two things would go a long way in restoring a population of minorities that have long been a target of anti-drug laws,” Patel said. 

He said the fight for marijuana legalization is important to Rutgers students, because it affects their futures, especially if they plan to stay in New Jersey. 

Millennials have been the driving force in the shift toward accepting marijuana as a recreational drug, Patel said. 

With the Pew Research Center reporting that the number of existing millennials is now beginning to surpass the population of previous generations, including baby boomers, it is clear that going forward the young adults of today’s generation will have a part to play in the discussion.

Justin Von Den Steinen

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