By Tina Pappas
for Montclair Local
A prosecutor is tired of prosecuting upstanding individuals for marijuana use, a psychotherapist contends the plant could help relieve her patients’ anxiety in a non-addictive manner and a reverend wants a stop to the marijuana arrests that break up families in his neighborhood.
These stories and more were told at a forum “Legal Marijuana: Implications for Justice, Health and the Economy,” at Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair on March 20. The evening featured a panel of experts who discussed the benefits of legalization while addressing concerns. The event was sponsored by Unitarian Universalist Faith
Action NJ, New Jersey for Marijuana Reform and BlueWaveNJ, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise public awareness on issues affecting communities and enabling individuals to take action.
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Medical marijuana is currently legal in New Jersey for medical purposes only. However, Gov. Phil Murphy wants state lawmakers to pass legislation decriminalizing and taxing recreational marijuana in New Jersey by the end of the year. New Jersey would join Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Washington D.C. where recreational marijuana is legal.
Medical marijuana is distributed out of six dispensaries, one of which has been in Montclair since 2012.
Greenleaf Compassion Center, the medical dispensary at 395 Bloomfield Ave., is ready for the full legalization of marijuana, said Julio Valentin Jr., CEO. But, he contends regulations need to be in place for successful recreational legalization.
“I think New Jersey could be a role model for the other states as long there’s regulation,” he explained.
Under current law, Greenleaf patients need to be registered with the Department of Health and have all the necessary paperwork from their physicians in order to purchase marijuana. That wouldn’t be the case if recreational use becomes legal.
The proposed legislation if it becomes law would regulate recreational marijuana, allowing 1 ounce possession of marijuana for those 21 and over, as well as expunging prior convictions for its possession.
The Rev. Rob Gregson, director of UU Faith Action NJ, lead the discussion on March 20. Panelists included the Rev. Tim L. Jones, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, Dianna Houneou, policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey, and Jon-Henry Barr, Clark municipal prosecutor. Also on-hand was Dr. Kamal Kalsi, an emergency medicine physician in Paterson. Kalsi also is part of the group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
Since taking office, Murphy has supported legalizing marijuana, while emphasizing that the legal pot industry could help garner $300 million a year in tax revenue. He also supports expunging the records of those who have had prior convictions for possession. Senator Cory Booker also supports the legalization proposal at the federal level. A recent Gallup poll shows that 64 percent of Americans are in favor of legalization.
Rev. Jones said marijuana use has been vilified too often, which has resulted in negatives implications for those particularly in marginalized communities.
“It’s a sin that some individuals get locked away while others profit off the substance. It’s been a war on families. My personal opinion is that legalization is going in the right direction,” Jones said.
Barr, who is secretary of the Municipal Prosecutor’s Association, spoke of pushing prison sentences, despite feeling “the criminals” did not deserve to go to jail for marijuana possession. He said he feels exhausted and aggravated by the system.
“[There was] this one young lady, as normal and decent as anyone you meet, but I was being forced to prosecute her and I was so upset. The next meeting we had of the association, I raised this issue with other prosecutors,”
Barr added a bi-partisan group of prosecutors agreed with legalizing recreational marijuana use.
“Shouldn’t we as a group of prosecutors say enough is enough?” Barr said. “Let’s collectively endorse the legalization and regulation.”
Barr said most individuals are prosecuted for alcohol consumption, but said that driving under the influence of any substance, including prescription drugs is never acceptable.
“Driving impairment due to being high is not common. Being too stoned to drive is a fairly rare instance and I don’t expect to see a high level of that, if it was legalized,” Barr said.
Barr noted that based on research, marijuana use does not increase major accidents or fatalities.
Kalsi argued marijuana is not a gateway to other drugs and referred to studies that indicate smoking does not worsen drug use and some research shows it can be used to treat alcoholism and cocaine addiction.
“People don’t die from too much marijuana,” said Kalsi. “On a busy night [in the ER], we’ll have at least a handful of people who have used cocaine and alcohol, including some combination drugs. None of these folks are there because they used too much marijuana.”
He contends that marijuana could be used successfully for depression and pain issues and is a much less addictive medication choice.
“I was in the military for 17 years and when I came back, I noticed so many of my fellow soldiers were addicted to opioids and were put on anti-depressants to treat depression and pain issues,” he recalled. “So we put them on a cocktail of medications and turned them into zombies. I felt frustrated that we really didn’t have an answer. Many of my friends actually started using marijuana and so many said to me that they were off using opioids and anti-depressants as a result.”
A recent Washington Post article entitled, “Legal Marijuana is saving lives in Colorado, study finds,” highlights preliminary findings in the drop of opioid deaths since marijuana was legalized.
Diane Finn, a psycho-therapist, said that marijuana would help many of her patients, particularly among those trying to get off alcohol and cocaine addiction.
“I find nothing else would be as effective for treating some patients. But I absolutely cannot prescribe it or administer medical marijuana and would refer patients to a psychiatrist for that,” she said.
Not in our town?
Numerous towns have banned the legalization of recreational marijuana in their backyards, regardless if the state enacts legislation. Cedar Grove council members are in the process of introducing an ordinance that would keep the recreational component illegal. According to Councilman Harry Kumburis, the governing body wants to take a proactive stand if it were to become decriminalized.
“One of the township’s primary focus would be to ban any dispensaries in town if it becomes legal,” he said. “Edible forms of marijuana that might become accessible if legalization takes place, such as candy and drinks, is also of concern with regard to protecting children and young people.”
The potential for harm outweighs any revenue the town would receive from taxation, he said.