DENVER - Whenever Gov. Christie is asked about legalizing marijuana, he promises a veto and points to Colorado with scorn. But when he leaves office in January 2018, New Jersey lawmakers say, they will move quickly to make pot legal and accessible to adults.
A delegation of New Jersey lawmakers is in Denver this week meeting with Colorado cannabis regulators and checking out the retail dispensaries, which opened in 2014. Many said they were impressed with Colorado's $1 billion-a-year marijuana industry and called the Mile High City's dispensaries - where an ounce of marijuana can be purchased for $100 to $250 - "discreet," "spotless," and "secure."
"I came because I'm very serious in getting this done," New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Monday, shortly before he toured a dispensary for the first time. "But we want to do it right in New Jersey. We want to learn from the mistakes Colorado made."
Sweeney said he was "very confident that a new law will be passed in 2018."
In 2010, New Jersey legalized medical marijuana, but the Legislature has not acted on a bill introduced by Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union) two years ago to legalize recreational cannabis. A Rutgers- Eagleton poll in 2015 showed that 58 percent of New Jersey residents favored legalization.
Sweeney, who previously would not commit himself to supporting the bill, said he now supported it wholeheartedly.
"Nick has done an amazing job on this, and we will get it passed," he said. Studies project that the measure could produce $300 million in new tax revenue, and Scutari called it "the next economic engine for the state."
During a tour of the Euflora dispensary, Sweeney said he was impressed. "It's spotless, and everything is in display cases. It's not like you're going to come in and grab something," he said, pointing to jars of cannabis buds locked to a table and to rows of marijuana oils behind glass cases. He also said the well-dressed customers did not look "like druggies."
Sweeney said he only tried marijuana once, when he was 18 and still living at home. "It didn't do anything for me. It just made me hungry," he said. "I was scared to death of my father, that he would kick my a-. Fear is a good thing." He said he is not tempted to try it again.
Scutari was not permitted to enter Euflora during the lunch hour because he forgot to bring his driver's license - a requirement under Colorado law. He said he previously visited the dispensary and was glad to see security was so tight Monday.
Sweeney recently decided against running for governor in 2017. While he was in contention, he said that he first wanted to see how other states were faring with marijuana legalization.
Philip Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany and now the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor, said at a town-hall meeting in Rutherford this month that he supports legalization, according to the Bergen Record.
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the Republican minority leader, said last week that most of the GOP caucus would not support legalization. "My guess is if you have a Democratic governor and Legislature, there's probably a good chance of decriminalization" being approved in the state, he said, referring to a plan in which possession of small amounts of marijuana would lead to civil fines rather than criminal penalties.
"But predicting the future in New Jersey politics," he said, is difficult. Bramnick said he was not convinced all Democratic legislators favored legalization because there are conservative districts in the state.
Bramnick said he could not make it to Denver with the other lawmakers because of his several jobs - lawyer, legislator, and comedian. "I hope they leave it [marijuana] there and don't bring any back. They'll probably listen to Easy Rider music on the plane," he quipped. He said he "doesn't deny using the stuff" when he was at Syracuse University, but he said he still does not favor legalization.
During meetings Monday with Colorado officials, regulators, and lawyers, the legislators learned Colorado brought in more than $76 million in marijuana taxes and fees in 2014 and more than $135 million last year.
Experts with the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulations said some money goes towards drug abuse prevention programs, studies of marijuana health effects, law enforcement, and education.
Christie has said he is against legalization because he views marijuana as a gateway drug and a dangerous substance. He has also resisted expanding the medical marijuana program in New Jersey because he calls it a front for legalization.
The eight lawmakers on the Denver trip include three Republicans and five Democrats.
In addition to Sweeney, the South Jersey contingent includes Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt, (D., Camden) and Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R., Burlington). Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden) had to cancel because of business matters.
The others on the visit are: Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset) and Assembly members Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth), Jim Kennedy (D., Union), and Jamel Holley (D., Union).
Lampitt, from Cherry Hill, said she tried marijuana when she was a college student at Johnson and Wales University, but did not like it. "I like to be in control," she said, laughing.
She said she went to Denver because she wants "to learn more about the challenges of legalization. I have always been in favor of decriminalization for possession of small amounts and am very supportive of medical marijuana."
Lampitt said she and her husband and legislative aides who took part in the trip "went on an incognito tour of a dispensary and asked a lot of tough questions." She said that she was impressed by her Sunday visit and that the staff had its facts in order and would not allow anyone to make a purchase without a valid ID. The purchase amounts were restricted, and the edibles that were sold were in sterile packaging and labeled, she said.
"Yes, I was very surprised," Lampitt said. But she said Monday said she was not ready to say whether she would support legalization and had questions about law enforcement and safety. "I haven't dotted all my I's and crossed all my T's yet. And that's what I will need to do," she said.