Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor Dr. Renée Baskerville hosted a public forum about the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana on February 26. She put together a panel that brought diverse points of view from different levels of government. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver was a featured guest, as were Democratic state senators Nia Gill (District 34) and Ronald Rice (District 28) and Democratic state assemblyman Thomas Giblin (District 34). Also joining the discussion were Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, Montclair prosecutor Joseph Angelo, and Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, along with two experts on the subject of marijuana – Dr. Cynthia Paige, president of the New Jersey Medical Association and Stu Zakim of the New Jersey Marijuana Business Association. Dr. Baskerville hoped to bring some clarity to a complicated subject, as two separate recreational marijuana legalizing bills have been making their way through either house of the state legislature. Mayor Jackson, for his part, said he could not offer much commentary but wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about the issue.
Lieutenant Governor Oliver explained to anyone supporting recreational marijuana legalization that the process was slow, but she touched upon another point that would be raised throughout the forum – the effect of legalization on racial and ethnic minorities. Oliver said these populations had been harmed by drug laws in the past, and she added that the legislation should be examined closely because of that.
On that note, Senator Gill said she was not opposed to making recreational marijuana legal, but she was reluctant to accept the bills as written. She faulted the legislation for not doing enough to expunge criminal records for people of color convicted of marijuana possession and said the bill did not effectuate social justice by leveling the field between white and minority populations when it came to how the law would be enforced. Furthermore, Senator Gill said, there was nothing in the legislation that guaranteed communities most affected by drug busts – poor cities and neighborhoods – a stake in the economic benefits of recreational marijuana legalization. And when it came to arrests for improper use of legalized marijuana, she noted, blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be arrested in states where it is legal, such as Colorado, than whites. Senator Gill said that arrests of blacks there have been up 52 percent since 2014 and arrests of Hispanics have been up 22 percent in the same time frame.
If Senator Gill was open somewhat to idea of legalized recreational marijuana, Senator Rice was vehemently against it. He said that THC, the intoxicating component in marijuana, has been showing up in pregnant women and in newborn babies, and he feared that more people would experiment with marijuana – and that people on food stamps would try to buy it with the money received from cashing in on food stamps. Senator Rice said this would create a public health hazard that would lead to more improper use among people of color and racial incidents between users and law enforcement. He dismissed the effort to legalize recreational marijuana as an effort to make money that would not necessarily benefit minority communities.
Freeholder Gill disagreed with Senator Rice’s assertions, and said that legalization of marijuana for recreational use was inevitable, citing a 65 percent approval for the idea according to a poll from Monmouth University. Assemblyman Giblin, who was an original member of the board of directors for Montclair’s first medicinal pot dispensary, said the revenue from legalization could help fund law enforcement and social programs, but he cautioned that expunging the records of marijuana offenders would be laborious and time-consuming. Both men agreed that legalization couldn’t be rushed and that time was needed to get it right.
Angelo said that enforcement was tricky, whether recreational marijuana is legalized or not. As a municipal prosecutor, he deals with disorderly-persons offenses, handling marijuana highs as he would handle drunkenness. The problem with determining whether a person is high, he said, was that there was no equipment sophisticated enough to detect it, unlike a Breathalyzer test for DUI suspects. THC can stay in a person for weeks after the high has passed, so tests for THC are not conclusive.
As a doctor and as a marijuana advocate, respectively, Dr. Paige and Mr. Zakim both agreed that the effects of marijuana were slight compared to heaver drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Dr. Paige said that marijuana was not a fatal substance like alcohol or opioids, and she noted that the United Kingdom had downgraded marijuana to its third highest level, Class C, from Class A, putting it on par with valium rather than with cocaine, heroin, and MDMA. Zakim offered himself as an example of responsible marijuana use. Zakim said he used pot responsibly and defended its effects for relieving people’s pain. Zakim said marijuana was hardly fatal unlike the opiates the big pharmaceutical companies have been pushing for so long. He noted that he lost a child to opioid addiction, which made him all the more hostile to the drug industry. The problem with legalizing marijuana in the states, he conceded, was that it remains illegal on the federal level and thus illegal to study professionally. He said that marijuana studies abroad, such as in Israel, were the only source of objective information on the drug.
While a few residents shared the skepticism of Senators Gill and Rice about legalization, many who attended advocated for the legislation currently being discussed by the Assembly and the Senate. Both Montclair Councilors Robert Russo (at-large) and Sean Spiller (Third Ward, Deputy Mayor) said it was necessary to get pot out of the black market and properly tax and regulate it, while lawyer Hanan Kolko said it would mitigate the drug problem and provide jobs in distributing and selling the product. Colleen Daly Martinez, meanwhile, explained how legalization and regulation would enhance marijuana for New Jersey residents overall.
“When we speak about legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, I think we should remind ourselves we are talking about adults. We are not talking about children. In addition to speaking about legalization we are speaking about regulation,” Martinez said. “One benefit that has not been mentioned this far, is the fact that once it is legalized, it will actually be a safer product. Purchasing marijuana illegally now puts people at much more risk of violence, crime, and exposure to other substances as illegally purchased marijuana can be cut or laced with other substances. For those who are concerned about safety of adult use of marijuana, I encourage you to reflect upon your concerns about other legal substances, including alcohol and prescription opiates. If we are talking about wanting to keep the people of New Jersey alive and safer, we should meet again here tomorrow night to talk about what we can do about legal alcohol, legal cigarettes, and legal prescription opiates.”
No minds were changed, although Freeholder Gill joked that, in response to Senator Rice’s forceful opposition to legalizing pot, he would mark him as “undecided.” Dr. Baskerville thanked everyone involved for lively discussion on the issue.
The full video of the forum is here.