Experts discuss effects of legalization of recreational marijuana

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EAST BRUNSWICK–With growing talks of legalizing recreational cannabis statewide, experts spoke about the effects it could have on the Township of East Brunswick.

More than 80 residents attended the East Brunswick Elks Lodge 2370 and the East Brunswick Municipal Alliance’s Marijuana Ordinance Forum on Feb. 26 at the Community Arts Center.

The event was moderated by attorney Darren Pfeil who explained the legal aspects of the state potentially legalizing recreational adult-use marijuana. Frank Greenagel, an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work and an instructor at the Center of Alcohol Studies, who is also a clinical social worker specializing in addition and recovery treatment, was the keynote speaker.

The two bills that are currently in the state’s Senate and Assembly are New Jersey A4497 and the first reprint of New Jersey S2703. The names of those bills are the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act, according to Pfeil.

Pfeil said the bills would permit any adult, 21 years or older, to buy and use one ounce or less of cannabis, one ounce or less of cannabis use product or five grams or less of cannabis resin.

“Residents would not be able to smoke in public places, generally speaking regarding consumption, which is anything that is not smoking-related,” Pfeil said. “A municipality, such as East Brunswick could enact an ordinance making it unlawful to consume cannabis in public spaces.”

According to findings in the bill, Pfeil said that New Jersey law enforcement made more than 24,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, more than in the previous 20 years. In 2012 a person was arrested every 22 minutes for marijuana possession. Black New Jerseyians are three times more likely to be arrested than white New Jerseyians despite similar usage rates, he said. Marijuana possession arrests account for three out of five drug arrests in New Jersey in 2012. New Jersey spends $127 million per year on marijuana enforcement.

Pfeil said the way the bill is written there are four classes of licenses that would be created under the act. Class one is for a cannabis grower, class two is for a cannabis processor, class three is for the cannabis wholesaler, class four is for the cannabis retailer.

Pfeil said this act prohibits the advertising that appeals to minors and advertisers are not allowed to use cartoons. No advertisements would be allowed on TV that include any streaming video over the internet. It requires warning labels and child-resistant containers and packaging. He said no ads will be allowed to be posted within 200 feet of an elementary or secondary school.

“The act as it currently stands provides for a 5.375 percent tax, but recent discussions suggest that the taxation will be changed to $42 per ounce. That just goes to show you that this act, while it is our landscape for tonight, is subject to change because it has not passed yet,” Pfeil said. “Now, that tax would be in addition to your sales tax. There is no tax on medical marijuana.”

Pfeil said in a township such as East Brunswick, officials may enact an ordinance providing up to 2 percent tax on sales to consumers, as well as from a cannabis establishment to another cannabis establishment.

A municipality can also enact the following ordinances: an ordinance governing the time and location, manner and number of cannabis establishments in town; an ordinance prohibiting the operation of one or more class of licenses; and an ordinance imposing separate local licensing or endorsement requirements is also something that can be allowed, according to Pfeil.

Pfeil said this bill also contemplates expediated expungements for past marijuana-related offenses. He said that more than 40 municipalities have enacted an ordinance that prohibits the sale of recreational adult-use marijuana in their towns.

Greenagel said as of 2017, the township has a population of 48,840 and is 22.5 square miles. In 2017, 253 adults and 35 juveniles were arrested for possession of marijuana. In 2018, 176 adults and 20 juveniles were arrested for possession of marijuana, according to Greenagel.

“There is no variation [of marijuana usage] amongst socio-economic class, it’s all the same. What we found is that the people that smoke marijuana regularly – it’s about 14 percent of the country [who] report smoking marijuana on a regular basis,” Greenagel said. “Of that 14 percent, about 19 percent of them say that the smoke about 300 times a year. This is the group that is going to be driving sales.” 

Greenagel said the potential revenue from marijuana sales will not increase the state’s revenue as much as people think.

“The number that has been pushed is $300 million of marijuana revenue in the first year or two. To any individual citizen out there you hear $300 million you are like that is a lot of money, but let’s place this into the context of state and municipal costs,” Greenagel said. “The New Jersey state budget … is $37.4 billion. Projected marijuana revenue is $300 million, which means it’s 0.008 or a little less than one percent of revenue. So all of you have come out tonight to discuss a one percent potential change to New Jersey state revenue.”

Once recreational marijuana is legalized, Greenagel said the price of marijuana will drop in New Jersey due to new suppliers entering the market, as well as the law enforcement premium which means that people are no longer worried about getting arrested and charged for possessing marijuana.

“Despite having legalization in Colorado for four years and in Washington for four years if anyone gets up and tells you that the legalization of recreational cannabis is going to effect crimes in law enforcement, they’re lying, they don’t know and we don’t know,” Greenagel said. “We still don’t have enough data yet.”

Greenagel said New Jersey is not offering guidance at this time on the issues about zoning or signage. So this is something that is going to have to be determined by the municipality, in terms of zoning and signage specifications.

“One such conflict is the lack of guidance amongst how to define driving under the influence. So we don’t know how to test people yet for driving if they smoke marijuana because if someone smokes marijuana … we can’t really rely on urine tests, we are going to have to rely on blood tests,” Greenagel said. “Urine tests are about $5 to $20, a blood test for marijuana might cost $200. … [If] marijuana is in the system but it’s not active, now we have to train any enforcement officer on the road or get more officers trained as drug recognition experts (DRE).”

Greenagel said even if the township does not allow recreational marijuana to be sold, the police department will still need one or two DREs due to drivers along Route 18.

Chief of Police James Conroy said, “The legalization of marijuana in New Jersey, particularly allowing dispensaries within East Brunswick, in my opinion, will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the safety and well-being of our residents. I think this is why we are seeing proactive towns throughout the state enact [an] ordinance to prohibit retail sales of dispensaries. I think we can learn a lot from a state like Colorado in the years since they passed Amendment 64 in 2012, legalizing recreational marijuana.”

He continued to say, “Marijuana-related traffic fatalities, significant increase in marijuana by juveniles, adult-use has skyrocketed, emergency room hospitalizations have gone up. Also, crime in Colorado has increased. So, basically if marijuana is legalized in New Jersey, there is not much we can do about it despite its consequences; however, if we encourage, in my opinion, the use [of] dispensaries we will be endangering and threatening public safety. I think we need to take a firm stand on this dispensaries issue and my motivation for being here is only out of concern for the safety of the other residents my officers and I serve.”

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.