United States: Opinion: Jersey's New Industry: Marijuana

Originally published by northjersey.com - Jan. 5, 2018

New Jersey's economic recovery from the Great Recession has been among the slowest in the nation. We lag behind neighboring New York and Pennsylvania and are comparable to states like West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Addressing this will be job number one for Governor Murphy and the new Legislature with limited ability given the tremendous competition globally to lure companies via new infrastructure and massive tax incentives which New Jersey struggles to afford.

Despite this, New Jersey is poised to be on the forefront of developing a new and lucrative industry with an opportunity to save money, improve the quality of life for New Jersey residents and create thousands of new jobs in retail, manufacturing, agriculture, and pharmaceutical research as well as millions in new tax revenue by taxing and regulating marijuana.

Along with the potential upside in revenue and jobs, there are some valid concerns and questions that remain including: How do we ensure that this will be done safely? What will we do to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors? How do we prevent individuals from driving under the influence? And, how do we ensure that we build a thriving industry inclusive of all New Jersey residents? And, how will Attorney General Sessions recent announcement impact efforts throughout the nation as well as here in New Jersey?

Thankfully, New Jersey will not be the first nor the last state in the United States to tax and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and over. Fortunately, we have been able to learn valuable lessons from states like Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts and Nevada.

For example, in states that have legalized marijuana, use among minors has actually declined because it is more difficult to obtain. Although studies show that mixing marijuana and driving can double the risk of an accident, it is important to put that into context. Driving while using a cellphone quadruples the risk of an accident and we have addressed that with new laws banning that activity.

And, while we await the implementation of new technologies to more accurately detect drug impaired drivers, other jurisdictions are employing proactive enforcement, blood tests, increased training of police officers to recognize impaired drivers and vigorous public education paid for by the industry to prevent impaired driving.

As we continue to learn from the experiences of other states, we have an opportunity to craft legislation to address some of the inadequacies that presently exist including those rooted in racial and social justice. If this new effort is going to be a success, it must be inclusive to address the current racial disparities that have existed during the time of prohibition as well as those that continue to persist given the lack of diversity in the new industry that has formed.

Minorities and minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by the war on marijuana over the years. More than 21,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2010. But our marijuana laws are not enforced equally.

Despite evidence that blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, blacks are arrested at a rate three times higher than whites. These arrests come with a life sentence of devastating consequences including incarceration, fines, as well as loss of employment, housing and student financial aid. One positive aspect of legalization is that it begins to address some of those racial and social justice concerns by eliminating the illegality. However, that alone is not enough.

New Jersey has a chance to do something profoundly different than other states that have previously taxed and regulated marijuana for adult use. Our location, experience in pharma and agriculture, a highly-educated workforce, and proximity to a large consumer market give New Jersey a significant advantage. But, in order for this economic success to be felt by all New Jerseyans, we must make sure that we create an industry that is as diverse as our state.

For starters, we must address the expungement of current criminal records of those convicted of previous marijuana crimes to ensure that these individuals can contribute to society. We must ensure that the revenue raised through new taxes on marijuana is properly reinvested to rebuild communities hardest hit by the war on marijuana. We need to develop a fair licensure system that attracts out-of-state expertise and investment but does not exclude New Jersey residents, in particular women and minorities as has been the case in almost every state that has legalized. And, we must ensure safe, affordable access for patients including the ability to grow at home.

Currently, 64 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana for adults. The question is no longer whether we legalize, but rather when and how. Despite some confusion that has been created by the Attorney General's recent announcement, New Jersey has the chance to be a leader in developing historic legislation aimed at creating a safe, diverse and highly lucrative industry.

While questions remain, the answers specific to New Jersey will be developed through the legislative process that will begin again in a few weeks. Whether you are for, against or still not sure where you stand on this, the time has come to get educated on the issues, voice concerns over perceived problems and bring responsible solutions to the table.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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