New Jersey State Senator Talks Up Pot Legalization After Colorado Visit

During a four-day trip to Colorado earlier this month that took him through Boulder, Golden and Denver, New Jersey senator Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat from Union, examined the effects of legalizing recreational marijuana. He concluded that similar legislation could benefit New Jersey.

His trip included visits to dispensaries and meetings with state officials, law enforcement and local business owners. In a press conference held when he returned home, he said he came away with a better understanding of safety regulations, such as making sure packaging on marijuana products indicates clear dosage levels and equipping police departments with drug-recognition experts.

Medical marijuana was made legal in New Jersey in 2010 but only serves about 6,466 patients, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Scutari sponsored a bill in 2014 to expand legalization to recreational use; after his visit to Colorado, he is expected to introduce a revised version of that bill by the end of the summer.

In an appearance on New Jersey Capitol Report in 2014, Scutari said the current laws aren't working, and asserts that New Jersey is wasting too much money on enforcement and probationary efforts.

According to a report by NJTV News, New Jersey spends $100 million annually on "cannabis-related crime fighting."

New Jersey's population, which stands close to 9 million, is almost twice that of Colorado's 5.4 million. With the amount of tax revenue Colorado has brought in through legalization, Scutari believes his state could collect over $300 million, just off the numbers alone.

"You can't ignore the financial impact," he said at the press conference. "Who doesn't want an extra couple hundred million dollars in state coffers? If someone tells me they don't want that, I don't think they should be in office."

Unfortunately for the senator, any bill he manages to get through the state legislature will likely be vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. 

"I don't care about the tax money that may come from it, and I don't care, quite frankly, that people think it's inevitable," Christie told NJTV News. "It's not inevitable here. I'm not going to permit it. Never, not as long as I'm governor."

Christie discussed his stance on marijuana in his campaign for president last year, as seen in the following video.

An estimated 844,000 people a year use marijuana in New Jersey, according to the most recent federal health survey covering 2013 and 2014, and 58 percent of New Jersey residents support legalization, according to a 2015 poll. 

As the law currently stands, "possession of even a single joint for non-medical purposes is punishable by up to six months of incarceration and up to a $1,000 fine" in New Jersey, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Despite Christie's continued pronouncements that recreational marijuana will not become legal in New Jersey during under his tenure, Scutari is showing a renewed commitment to the legalization effort after his visit to Colorado.

"I saw vibrant small communities which had no discernible changes as a result of marijuana being legalized," he said. "I didn't see anybody out ingesting it. It didn't appear to me anybody was out walking around in a state of inebriation. Just nice towns we'd be proud to have in our communities."
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Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.