Could marijuana legalization hit N.J. after 2018?

<p>Photo Illustration | Marijuana is not likely to be legalized under Governor Chris Christie (R.-N.J.), even if the legislature passes a bill approving of its use. The next New Jersey governor, who will be elected in 2017, may legalize weed.</p>

Photo Illustration | Marijuana is not likely to be legalized under Governor Chris Christie (R.-N.J.), even if the legislature passes a bill approving of its use. The next New Jersey governor, who will be elected in 2017, may legalize weed.

When New Jersey’s next governor assumes office in 2018, legislation to decriminalize and legalize the use of recreational marijuana may be signed into action, according to NJ Advance Media.

In September, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25) sponsored a bill in the New Jersey State Assembly that would treat marijuana similarly to tobacco products in the eyes of the government. If passed, the bill would allow cannabis to be sold to anyone aged 19 or older in unlimited quantities in convenience stores, according to Politico.

The bill would also decriminalize the use of cannabis and clear the criminal records of individuals previously convicted of marijuana possession.

Yvonne Wollenberg, a professor in the Department of Political Science, said despite the popularity of legalization among voters, she finds it unlikely that this bill or any legislation similar to it will be passed before Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) leaves office.

“Even if (this bill) passes both the State Assembly and State Senate, Christie is likely to veto the measure,” Wollenberg said. “The state legislature has not yet been able to override a single veto during Christie’s tenure.”

During Christie's presidential run he promised that if elected, he would implement federal laws against marijuana to counter legalization of the drug in states like Colorado and Washington.

“Marijuana is against the law in the states and it should be enforced in all 50 states,” Christie said in a television interview in 2015. “That is the law and the Christie administration will support it.”

Christie also rejected a budget reform proposal that proposed using tax revenue from marijuana sales to improve education and infrastructure, according to the Huffington Post. Potential revenue from marijuana taxation would have amounted to roughly $300,000.

Current New Jersey criminal law takes a harsh stance on marijuana, Wollenberg said. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010 the state averaged more than 20,000 marijuana possession arrests per year.

“Possessing even a small amount of marijuana in New Jersey can result in a six-month jail sentence and $1,000 in fines. The penalties stiffen sharply for anything over 50 grams or 1.76 ounces, which is the average weight of a joint,” she said. “Conviction then jumps to a minimum of 18 months in jail and $25,000 in fines.”

Although 1.76 ounces is the minimum amount to constitute a felony, it is not consistent on a federal basis, according to CNN.

Many states have different laws and different legal minimums for marijuana. For example, just one state over from New Jersey, Delaware's required quantity for a felony charge increases to 176.37 ounces. Meanwhile, in states like California, no amount of marijuana can warrant a felony charge, according to CNN.

New Jersey has a small medicinal marijuana system. The state currently administers medical marijuana to an estimated 9,500 people, according to the State Health Department. If recreational marijuana is legalized, regulation of the program would be merged with the existing medical program.

“A Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken in 2015 shows that 58 percent of New Jersey residents support legalizing marijuana,” Wollenberg said, “But a closer look at the poll shows that the issue is considered to be ‘very important’ to only 20 percent. That is not likely to translate into strong pressure on state legislators.”

Ashley Koning, intermin director for the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, said the study analyzed respondent’s attitudes towards legalizing marijuana and using tax revenue for infrastructure. There were 850 state residents interviewed.

“I think it is quite possible that support for legalization could translate into legislation,” Koning said. “That is how citizenry is treated in an ideal democracy, and we’ve seen similar patterns to this in issues like same-sex marriage, where public opinion guided policy."

Koning said there have already been “rumblings among officials in New Jersey” that come 2018, legalization will be a reality in the Garden State.

“We’ve seen, in other states like Colorado, that legalization has benefitted them economically. It could potentially generate tourism and local economic growth, which is a line of argument that some elected officials have been using to advocate it,” Koning said. 

Colorado legalized marijuana in January 2014 and has since experienced an influx of new jobs and over $135 million in state revenue from taxes, according to the Boston Globe.

In light of recent events in New Jersey such as the gas tax, the decline of Atlantic City and issues with the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, Koning said the economic boost the marijuana tax revenue would offer will likely be appealing to voters and elected officials alike.

The Rutgers-Eagleton data showed despite high overall approval ratings, marijuana legalization is prone to partisan disagreements. While 39 percent of Democrats strongly supported, and 25 percent somewhat supported legalizing and taxing marijuana, the numbers dropped to 18 and 23 percent respectively among Republicans, Koning said.

“It is unlikely that anything will be legalized until Chris Christie is out of office, but in the future, there is a good chance that legislation on marijuana will catch up to public opinion,” Koning said.

Kira Herzog is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @kiraherzog1 for more.

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