BY ERIN ROLL
With recreational marijuana use nearer to becoming legal in New Jersey, Montclair held a forum to discuss the pros and the cons to legally lighting up in the Garden State.
On Feb. 26, panelists included Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver; Senators Nia Gill and Ronald Rice; Assemblyman Thomas Giblin; Freeholder President Brendan Gill; Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson; Montclair Municipal Prosecutor Joseph Angelo; Dr. Cynthia Paige, the president of the New Jersey Medical Association and a doctor with a practice in West Orange; and Stu Zakim, the president of the Marijuana Business Association.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, who moderated the forum, said after the bill advanced through the Senate in November, constituents began asking asking what recreational cannabis could mean for Montclair.
The panelists discussed: the expungement of criminal records for pot arrests; how people of color are more likely to get a conviction on marijuana-related charges; concerns that decriminalization would allow greater access for young people; and recreational marijuana economic development opportunities.
Montclair has been home to one of six medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state. Montclair’s Greenleaf Compassion Center was the state’s first medical dispensary opening in 2012.
In the seven years that the Greenleaf Compassion Center had existed in Montclair, there have not been any problems, according to Councilman Bob Russo.
There could be as many as 120 recreational cannabis dispensaries throughout the state. Over 60 towns have passed ordinances banning recreational dispensaries in their towns. Secaucus, which is home to a medical dispensary, decided to ban a recreational facility in their town in July of last year.
Freeholder President Brendan Gill told the attendees that the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over is coming to New Jersey. A recent poll by Monmouth University found that 65 percent of people polled were in favor of legalizing marijuana for adults.
The legislation is known as the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act. The bill, S2703, was sponsored by Senators Nicholas Scutari and Stephen Sweeney. Its companion bill, A4497, is sponsored by Annette Quijano, Britnee Timberlake, Jamel Holley and Angela McKnight. It was referred to the Senate for a second reading in November 2018. The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act legalizes personal use cannabis for adults; creates Cannabis Regulatory Commission to regulate personal use and medical cannabis; provides expungement relief for certain past marijuana offenses.
Another bill, A1557, addresses the expungement of convictions for small amounts of marijuana.
The social impact of legalizing marijuana is critical to the Murphy administration, said Oliver. “Many of us are extremely concerned with the number of minority men and women who have had their lives deconstructed by marijuana,” Oliver said.
But she said concerns by law enforcement, parents and the medical community had to be weighed.
Nia Gill said she voted in favor of medical marijuana legalization and was in favor of legalization of recreational cannabis.
For the panel members, one of the most significant issues was that people of color — African Americans and Latinos — are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
Rice cited data showing that in states such as Colorado, where recreational marijuana had been legalized, minority communities were still being disproportionately arrested and charged with marijuana possession.
“We, in the African American community, we’ve been saying that for a number of years about all the drugs. The reality is that they never listened. They never listen until it becomes about money,” he said as to why he is against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
Councilman Sean Spiller said, ”But that does not change the fact that right now, we are disproportionately affecting individuals of color with the laws that exist now. We’re in a system where the laws and the impact are doing more harm than the drug itself. And to me, at the core, that means something is wrong, and we’ve got to fix it.”
Decriminalization is a large part of legalizing recreational use. The panel also voiced concerns that the bills did not make it easier for people to have past marijuana convictions expunged from their records, which is an issue for people with convictions applying for employment. The bill only allows expungements for convictions involving a very small amount of marijuana.
Giblin said that expungement of convictions was more difficult than people realized.
“This is not a walk in the park, trying to get records expunged,” he said.
Giblin had voted in support of medical marijuana, and he said that medical professionals had seen positive benefits of the drug when it was used by their patients.
Rice also said that babies born with THC in their systems is on the rise, as well as mothers with THC-related conditions. And with legalization, he said, a lot of young people who never thought about using drugs began experimenting with marijuana.
Paige, who owns a practice in South Orange said In the United Kingdom, cannabis is considered a Class C drug, a category that includes Valium and anabolic steroids. But in the United States, cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 drug: a drug with no accepted medical use, and with significant potential for abuse. This U.S. category also includes LSD, heroin and Ecstasy.
“But scientifically, we understand that marijuana does not pose the same dependence or withdrawal effects as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or sleeping pills,” Paige said.
Cannabis should be avoided by people with certain mental conditions, including schizophrenia. Marijuana use may have a negative impact on memory for up to 24 hours. There is also evidence to suggest that in young people, marijuana could lead to a drop in IQ: as much as four points, Paige said.
Compared to alcohol and drugs, marijuana use has less potential for resulting in chronic disease, she added.
“Is this an issue for the judicial system, or an issue of the judicious use of the cannabis plant and its extract?” she asked.
From medical to recreational
Resident Matthew Cantwell said that he has successfully used marijuana for medicinal purposes. “You can’t use fear to make these decisions,” he said. “You have to use logic, use reason.”
He suggested New Jersey learn from other states in setting up recreational marijuana dispensaries that are safe and secure.
Russo said that his mother suffers from glaucoma. “Now, she never smoked even a cigarette,” he said, “But my mother needs help, and [medical] marijuana has been a very good program here in Montclair.”
Legalizing cannabis would get marijuana out of the black market and get it to people who need it, he said.
Spiller said legalizing what people are already getting on the streets will regulate it and make it safer.
“I see that in many instances, individuals who want to acquire marijuana can do so. Unfortunately a lot of them are doing so from individuals who are offering other drugs or are [adding] a lot of other pieces to it,” he said.
But he feels the legislation in its current form did not go far enough in terms of community investment opportunities, social justice, and record expungement.
Resident Catherine Murrin said she is concerned with legalizing cannabis. Her daughter’s neighbor in college smoked marijuana. The man proved to be a nuisance, and at one point, he smashed her daughter’s car, she said.
As president of the Marijuana Business Association, Zakim is trying to break the stigma surrounding marijuana.
“My goal in this business is education,” he said. He criticized what he saw as misinformation by some of the other speakers. “Thank God no one said weed, pot, dope, because those are terms we don’t want to talk about,” he quipped.
He noted that marijuana was safer than many other drugs. “Nobody has ever died from an overdose of cannabis.”
Zakim reminded the panel recreational marijuana use if legal would be by adults only not children.
Panel guests also concurred that incentives were needed for locals to open and operate a dispensary in their community over that of large businesses and hedge fund owners.
Under federal law, banks cannot give loans for marijuana facilities, so a would-be owner must have the cash in hand to open a facility.
Baskerville said the next step will be to start a community group in Montclair to go over the legislation in detail, and to come up with questions to send to Montclair’s representatives at the state level. Baskerville also anticipated that there would be another panel at some date in the future.