Forum presents pros and cons of legalized recreational marijuana

EAST BRUNSWICK–With New Jersey becoming the newest state to legalize recreational marijuana use, Wellspring Center for Prevention Coordinator Mara Carlin explained the potential effects of this new bill.

Carlin is the coordinator of Coalition and Community Programs at Wellspring Center for Prevention and has been in the prevention field for almost 20 years.

In November 2020, New Jersey voters approved a state public question to amend the state constitution to legalize the recreational use of cannabis by people age 21 and older.

On Feb. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a historic adult-use cannabis reform bills into law, legalizing and regulating cannabis use and possession for adults 21 years and older and decriminalizing marijuana and hashish possession, according to a prepared statement from the governor’s office.

Marlin presented various information to about two dozen attendees of the forum, which was held by the East Brunswick Public Library on March 19 via video conference.

In 2010, Carlin said medical marijuana became available in New Jersey with some of the strictest laws in the country. The penalty for possession of more than 50 grams was a disorderly person’s ticket.

By 2016-17, Carlin said bills were starting to be introduced to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2017, Murphy ran for governor with one of his campaign promises being the legalization of recreational marijuana usage.

A big turning point, Carlin said, was in 2018, when medical marijuana laws were reviewed with recommendations to relax current regulations. On Nov. 26, 2018, a bill was approved by the state Senate and Assembly Budget Committees for full house vote, but eventually not a full vote.

“New Jersey is the 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Every single state has different rules and regulations. The first one was Colorado, there were some lessons learned from Colorado that we’re bringing over here to New Jersey,” Carlin said. “Also, right now it’s still federally illegal, there are bills in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to legalize marijuana as a whole in the United States. With a Democratic House, the Democratic Senate and a Democratic president, I foresee that happening.”

As of right now, Carlin said it is still illegal in New Jersey and still a schedule one drug in New Jersey. If someone is 21 and older, they can possess up to 6 ounces of marijuana; however, there are restrictions on where you can consume marijuana.

“The restrictions are very similar to alcohol restrictions, so in parks, in public places, you’re not allowed to consume,” Carlin said. “The dispensaries that open, a lot of them will have consumption sites, indoor and outdoor, so you’ll see those rules and regulations come down. Right now, the only dispensaries that are open are medical marijuana dispensaries, and there are 12 in the state.”

Carlin said once recreational dispensaries start opening up, there will be up to 37 cultivators, which include the 12 medical marijuana dispensaries. So, there are only a few licenses left to be had, but there will be stores in a lot of the municipalities where people live and work, she said.

On the law enforcement side, Carlin said police officers can no longer use the smell of marijuana to conduct a search, except for suspected DUI. Prosecutions must put an end to low-level arrests, meaning if someone is in possession of less than 6 ounces of marijuana.

“Marijuana is decriminalized … for anyone under 21, meaning that right now if a kid under 21 gets caught using alcohol or marijuana, they’re not going to get arrested. Of course, we don’t want kids to get arrested, but also parents right now are not going to be notified, it’s kind of going to be some kind of warning, but there’s really no checks or balances,” Carlin said. “It’s not like there’s a system where a law enforcement officer could be like, alright well I stopped you know Mara Carlin, she was under 21, it was her first warning , the next one, like we’re going to notify their parents. There’s nothing like that yet.”

Municipalities right now have 180 days to opt-out if they do not want to have dispensaries in their town.

“There are lots of things that municipalities have to decide, not just dispensaries but cultivation places, consumption areas, so there are lots of decisions that municipalities are going to have to make in the next 180 days from when the governor signed the legislation. So there’s a lot of thinking that municipalities have to do,” she said.

Carlin said for recreational marijuana, New Jersey residents are not allowed to home-grow.

Some pros regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana include:

  • Increase in state revenue; other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have a lot of tax collected. In New Jersey, there’s not really a clear path on what exactly that revenue is going to be used for; the state has a lot of debt, so it might be used for that, Carlin said;
  • Safety controls in terms of preventing the distribution of black market marijuana, which is sometimes laced with other substances;
  • The expansion of medicinal marijuana usage, specifically allowing more research to be done on marijuana;
  •  Reducing stigma around individuals who have substance use disorders. When things are decriminalized and/or legalized, there’s less stigma and if somebody needs help, they’re more likely to ask for help, she said.

“What’s great about criminal justice reform is that it reduces a lot of costs. …You look at the amount of people that have been arrested for low-level marijuana crimes, for lack of better words, there’s just a lot of money lost their expungement,” Carlin said. “Many people have on their record marijuana, marijuana arrests, those are going to be expunged. Then our current laws, the way that they were written really disproportionately targeted people of color and people from low socioeconomic areas.”

A few cons in terms of regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana usage include:

  • Commercialization of marijuana, which is particularly true with edibles. Once dispensaries begin to open, edible products will be able to be sold, which most look and taste sweet like candy.
  • Youth usage and addiction. Although marijuana is not as addictive as other substances, the number one drug that youth go to treatment for is marijuana, Carlin said.
  • Health risks relating to brain development amongst youth who consume marijuana.

“You can poison yourself, especially young kids when they’re out and about, but with edibles, it often takes longer for you to feel the effects than traditionally smoking marijuana or vaping oils,” Carlin said. “So what happens a lot of times is people take a portion, don’t feel anything for, I don’t know 30-40 minutes, take more to feel the effects, and then it kind of hits them all at once.”

Since the state of Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, Carlin said marijuana traffic-related deaths increased 151% while all Colorado traffic-related deaths increased 35%. Traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 138 people killed in 2017, she said.

Besides marijuana-related traffic deaths, Carlin said in Colorado they also saw an increase in marijuana hospitalizations and violent crimes.

“My passion is youth, my passion is really making sure that our youth are safe. You know, adult use is one thing, but I think when it comes to the youth, we have to be really careful and what our laws are saying, where we’re selling it, what some of the rules and regulations are,” Carlin said.

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Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.