TRENTON — The first New Jersey legislative hearing on the legalization of marijuana held since Gov. Murphy took office — after he promised his support — unfolded Monday before more than 100 people.
More than a dozen experts traveled from as far as Colorado and Massachusetts to office advice on legalization, a topic gaining traction after Murphy, a Democrat, replaced Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican adamantly opposed to it, in January.
Several lawmakers are working on legalization bills, but none has come up for a vote and some legislators say they are trying to get a consensus.
Joe Danielsen, chairman of the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee, said he called the hearing because legalization is an issue "of great concern to the public." He said the committee would be "starting with a blank slate" and listening to ideas from experts for and against, and from the public.
Danielsen, a Democrat, said he will hold three other hearings around the state. In South Jersey, a hearing is tentatively scheduled for April 21 at Rowan University.
Shanel Lindsay, an attorney who helped draft cannabis legalization laws that are still being finalized in Massachusetts, recommended New Jersey lawmakers consider social justice issues.
Lindsay said minorities have been unjustly and disproportionately arrested for possession of marijuana and should be given an opportunity to operate and work in dispensaries. "There is a right way to legalize," she said.
Provisions should allow for the speedy expungement of criminal records involving marijuana use so that some of those from minorities will be able to participate in the marijuana industry. She also said there should be incentives to help them get into the business.
Dan Pabon, a Colorado lawmaker, said he voted against legalization when it was proposed in 2012 because he was concerned about the impact on children.
"I was very wary of being the first in the country to legalize," he said. Pabon, a Democrat, said he no longer has misgivings because the state put in place a range of regulations to protect children and they are safer than before, because the black market has been brought under control.
"The winners are the kids, as long as it stays out of their hands. The losers are the criminals and cartels," he said.
But Todd Raybuck, a police captain in Las Vegas, reported the opposite experience. He said there has been a "significant increase in the illegal marijuana market." Drug dealers, he said, feel they have more "cover" to sell marijuana on the streets.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, was also expected to testify. He has warned that legalization will increase drug use and will also "create another big tobacco" that would be especially harmful to children.
Danielsen thanked the speakers for travelling to the hearing and expressed special gratitude to Rob Cressen of Long Branch, who arrived in a wheelchair. Cressen said he is in constant pain but decided to testify.
"Of all the people … you have traveled the furthest," Danielsen said.
Cressen, who was the executive director of the New Jersey Republican Committee eight years ago, said medical marijuana saved his life – and saved him from his opioid addiction — after he developed "complex regional pain syndrome" in 2011.
"You could kill an elephant with all of the pills I've taken, and my liver failed four times in five years…I have 99 problems, but because of marijuana, opioid addiction is not one of them," he said.
Cressen supports legalization because he said the medical marijuana program in New Jersey is broken. There are too few dispensaries and he must travel an hour to pick up the cannabis. The limit on the amount he can purchase prevents him from getting the pain relief he needs.
"To most of us, this is about liberty. The liberty to make our own choice on how to medicate and how to recreate," he said. "Legalization would do more than any other effort to fix our broken system."