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Pressure Builds for Cannabis Legalization in New Jersey & New York

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Pressure Builds for Cannabis Legalization in New Jersey & New York

New York and New Jersey are notorious rivals, and the two states are now racing to see which will legalize cannabis first. There are formidable obstacles in both states, but New Jersey is clearly ahead.

The two neighboring Northeast states that share the country’s biggest metropolitan area are both moving toward cannabis legalization — although at different speeds. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is, at least, weighing the idea. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has openly embraced it. And with action in New Jersey’s state house stalled, some municipalities are starting to take the lead.

The Greening of the Garden State

Jersey City, located just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, this week announced that it is implementing its own “marijuana decriminalization policy.” As with the similar move taken by New York City this year, this is not actually a change to the law, but to enforcement and prosecution. As The Jersey Journal explains, prosecutors are instructed to downgrade most cannabis charges to non-criminal offenses — and encouraged to seek dismissal of low-level charges altogether.

The new policy, embraced by Mayor Steven Fulop, is outlined in a July 19 memo from the Office of the Municipal Prosecutor. City prosecutor Jake Hudnut is recommending a fine of no more than $50 or five hours of community service if charges are not dismissed. Cannabis possession is usually charged as a “disorderly person” offense, carrying up to six months behind bars.

In announcing the move, Hudnut said: “What gives me pause is that despite similar cross-racial usage of marijuana, New Jerseyans of color are three times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana than white New Jerseyans. I think prosecutors have an obligation to acknowledge this and fix this problem.”

An estimated 25,000 people in New Jersey are arrested annually for cannabis possession. This costs the state justice system some $1 billion each year, including jailing, policing and court proceedings, according to New York’s WPIX.

The Garden State’s governor Murphy took office in January after campaigning on a pledge to legalize cannabis, raising expectations for imminent legislation. In March, he announced it as a goal for this year. But while the state medical marijuana program is expanding fast, there has been little headway on building a regulated adult use marketplace.

More than 10,000 patients have enrolled in the medical program since Murphy was sworn in, bringing the current total to some 25,000. A July 16 New York Times account featured the newly opened Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, where an ambitious on-site indoor grow operation will eventually cover 15,000 square feet. It is projected to yield an annual two tons of bud.

Yet even with the state legislature controlled by Murphy’s Democrats, and even with the support of Senate president Stephen Sweeney, the legalization bill still hasn’t been introduced. Lawmakers in Trenton have been distracted by an intraparty dispute over the state budget.

Still, Murphy says he’s ready to introduce the bill in the fall. “I would hope we could do it this year,” he told the Times.

Activists Strike Back in the Empire State

Meanwhile, in New York, the state Health Department on July 13 released its long-awaited report on cannabis legalization, which had been ordered by Gov. Cuomo. The report, entitled “Assessment of the Potential Impact of Regulated Marijuana in New York State,” concludes: “The positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts. Areas that may be a cause for concern can be mitigated with regulation and proper use of public education.”

Cuomo immediately said that he accepted its findings. “The situation on marijuana is changing,” he told the New York Times. While he stopped short of stating that he would back legalization, he spoke as if the idea were under serious consideration. “Now you have to answer specifics. Who sells it? Where do they sell it? What quantity can you sell?” he asked. “That to me, the devil’s in the details. And to come up with a full program, that’s what we have to answer.”

The report makes a convincing case — raising points that cannabis advocates have been hitting on for years. “Research indicates that regulating marijuana can reduce opioid use (legal and illegal),” it states. It finds “no conclusive evidence about whether legalizing marijuana increases use.” And it adds: “Meta-analysis of existing literature does not support the hypothesis that recent changes to marijuana laws have led to an increase in marijuana use prevalence in adolescents.”

Once again, the report notes that “one of the biggest drivers of racial disparities in criminalization and incarceration rates is marijuana, and the best way to address it is to legalize marijuana.”

That Cuomo ordered the report at all was clearly a response to growing pressure from below. The insurgent candidacy of Cynthia Nixon in this year’s gubernatorial race, with cannabis a key issue, has lit a fire under the state’s political establishment — even prompting Cuomo’s own state Democratic Party to officially embrace legalization. The challenge now will be to keep the pressure on. Assuming Cuomo wins re-election in November (which is a good bet), he could go to sleep on the issue again — unless advocates can keep that fire burning.

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