The war on drugs in New Jersey has a clear focus on cannabis consumers. Now, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari is holding a hearing on Nov. 16 to explore an end to cannabis prohibition.
Arrests for marijuana possession in the Garden State have increased more than 10 percent in recent years.
Data from the New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Report shows that in 2013, the last year for which data is available, possession arrests for weed rose to a staggering 24,769 in a single year.
From 2009 to 2011, marijuana arrests held steady at about 22,000 per year. A noticeable jump happened in 2012 and steadily increased into 2013.
According to the NJSP report, marijuana accounts for 57 percent of all drug possession arrests. In fact, more people are arrested for pot than for all other drug possession and sales arrests combined.
Using a cost analysis the RAND Corporation performed for Vermont, each time someone is put into handcuffs for pot, $1,260 tax dollars are spent.
That means more than $31 million dollars are shelled out in New Jersey every year just to collar stoners. Another $1,000 is spent bringing each New Jersey resident into court for arraignment on criminal misdemeanor charges. So that's a fast total of $54 million per year. Even more taxes are spent on trials, supervision, and incarceration.
Most of these costs are borne by the individual counties and municipalities where the arrests happen.
New Jersey residents also bear one of the heaviest tax burdens in the nation. As the state and the towns within it struggle to find new revenue sources, legal cannabis is becoming a lot more attractive.
Sen. Scutari (D-Linden) has introduced legalization that would tax and regulate marijuana, treating it similarly to alcohol. The bill has been active for two years but no committee hearings have been held.
The hearing next week will have invitation-only testimony coordinated by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR). That group was formed by the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association and the ACLU of New Jersey to push the issue forward. Often the two founding organizations are at odds, but here they found serious common ground.
Bill Caruso, an attorney and longtime player in New Jersey politics, has been volunteering with NJUMR. He worked at the New Jersey Assembly Majority Office and was for years on the staff of Congressman Rob Andrews. Yesterday, we spoke during the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey podcast recorded in front of the State House.
Caruso has hope that the Garden State will go green sooner rather than later.
Gov. Chris Christie is arguably the nation's most vocal marijuana prohibitionist; he has been adamantly against his state making the shift towards legalization. But Caruso says we shouldn't wait until he leaves office in 2017.
"We have good support from leadership, good support from a broad cross section of Democrats and, by the way, good support from some Republicans on this," says Caruso. "So I'm not writing off until the next governor is in office for this. I think we start now. I say we try and see where the chips fall."
Indeed, after the Senate recently overrode a Christie veto for the first time, there is some hope that the New Jersey Legislature may be able to push the issue through without the governor on board.
In statement about the information hearing, Sen. Scutari said, "We have to take a more reasonable approach to the regulation of marijuana. Legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana will bring it out of the underground market, making the product and our communities safer. It will allow law enforcement to re-dedicate their resources to where they are most needed. In addition, it will create revenue for the state to help fund critical programs and services for our residents. This is an opportunity to hear from stakeholders and the public about the best way to do that."
The hearing will be held on Monday at 1 p.m. in Committee Room 4 on the first floor of the State House Annex.
A poll released last June by Rutgers-Eagleton found 58 percent of New Jersey residents support marijuana legalization.
"We have been seeing a long-term upward trend in favor of marijuana legalization among New Jersey-ans," said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Colorado brought in more than $70 million dollars in marijuana taxes during the last fiscal year. That was far and away more than the $42 million Colorado collected in alcohol taxes. New Jersey has almost double the population as Colorado.
"New Jersey could bring in $200 million a year in marijuana taxes," said NJUMR's Caruso, "And that is a very conservative estimate."