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NJ Senate Democrats Hold Virtual Legalization Forum with Advocates

With legalization and decriminalization stalled, NJ Senate Democrats held a virtual forum on cannabis legalization with advocates.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) moderated the legalization forum with cannabis sponsor Judiciary Chair Nick Scutari (D-Union), and Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson).  The other panelists were NJ NAACP Political Action Chair R. Todd Edwards, Latino Action Network President Christian Estevez (on whose board I serve, full disclosure), Public Defender Joseph Krakora, and NJ State Bar Association President Kimberly Yonta.

“Now that marijuana was legalized by a 2:1 margin in New Jersey, we can start fixing the wrongs here,” Sweeney said.

He acknowledged that some State Senators “are still not yet onboard” legalization, which means that they do not yet have the votes to pass legalization.

Enabling Bill Discussed in Cannabis Forum

“People would be more supportive of it if they knew what we were going to do with the dollars,” Cunningham said.

Sweeney said that 70 percent of the money collected from cannabis sales would address the harm done, and 30 percent would go to law enforcement.

“I didn’t do this for the money and the tax revenue,” Sweeney said regarding his initial interest in the issue. “Where the money goes was never what I concentrated on.”

“We didn’t want to get in on that,” Scutari said. “I’m certainly open-minded.”

“The majority of the money is going to go into the communities impacted,” Sweeney said, noting the cities of Bridgeton, Salem City, and Newark.

He said his true motivation was to create jobs, and believes legalization would create 143,000 jobs.

Ruiz lauded the amendments to help minorities in the enabling bill raise a tax for it. She was especially interested in money from cannabis tax revenue going to public schools.

Estevez said there should be ample opportunities for Hispanics and other minority entrepreneurs in the legal cannabis industry.

“We’re really concerned about the cost of entering this market,” Estevez said.

Edwards noted that a cap on the cannabis business licenses would hurt entrepreneurs.

He added a Hispanic American should be appointed to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC).

Decriminalization Pending

“Decrim is a huge piece of this we’re working through,” Sweeney said during the legalization forum.

“The fact that we don’t have a decrim bill signed into law… is a real disgrace,” said Ruiz.

She said that initially, Sweeney thought social justice wouldn’t be included in the bill.

“We want to make sure decrim is a priority,” Edwards said at the legalization forum.

“I’m one of those statistics arrested for a small amount of marijuana,” he added. Edwards noted he had the money to fight it and was able to retain his funeral director license.

He noted people have been arrested since the referendum passed.

“It’s really about the violence associated with our communities,” Estevez said.

He noted police brutality’s impact on those caught with cannabis many were selling to make ends meet.

“It puts a stain on our employment record. And it follows you through the rest of your life,” Estevez said. “The gateway is this small stain leads to a larger impact that really messes you up.”

Workplace Drug Testing

Scutari noted that due to drug testing, an employee could be fired for testing positive even if they are not high at the time. But he does not support random drug testing because the right to consume cannabis will be constitutionally protected.

He noted cannabis stays in the body when a person is sober when they are not under the influence. Because there is no alcohol breathalyzer test, police Drug Recognitions Experts (DRES) are funded to address.

“I can speak as the union rep in the room. When someone is suspected by the employer, but there’s no evidence… it’s really easy to ruin somebody’s life,” Estevez said.

He noted poor dress, language, and posture might lead someone to get inadvertently fired.

“In alcohol, there’s a test…They’re working on swab tests,” Sweeney said, acknowledging on the legalization forum it will likely be reformed.

“Everything we do we come back to,” he added.

Sweeney noted under the “Ban the Box” law you can’t ask anyone a felon until you make a hire.

“Normally, people who get arrested don’t get to that final interview,” he said.

Sweeney noted that the communities that should get help would be expanded to include Salem City and smaller cities like it.

Said that dealers get busted once suburban customers leave.

No one on the panel noted the need for homegrow.

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