Nearly 150 people squeezed into a meeting room at the Statehouse in Trenton as the state officially opened the conversation on marijuana legalization.
More than a dozen advocates and lobbyists spoke in favor of legal weed, while a handful of others told the committee why recreational cannabis should be kept away from New Jersey.
Despite the opposing testimony, several common themes emerged at Monday hearing. Above all, marijuana legalization would have a major impact on the state. Here are six of the biggest takeaways from the hearing — the first of likely many to come.
1. All eyes are on New Jersey
People traveled far and wide to testify at the hearing on Monday. Rep. Dan Pabon, a Colorado state lawmaker, spoke to the committee, as did a Las Vegas police officer. Two people who helped craft marijuana policy in Massachusetts also testified. They were invited by the New Jersey Assembly’s Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee.
Why would these people come to Trenton for a hearing not geared toward any specific piece of legislation? The answer was best summed up by Bill Caruso, an attorney with Archer Law in New Jersey and a pro-marijuana lobbyist.
“Jersey sits in the middle of phenomenal wealth, phenomenal population centers and phenomenal transportation systems,” Caruso said, talking about the potential of a New Jersey marijuana industry.
Pabon, the pro-legal weed lawmaker from Colorado, lamented the lack of marijuana-related data in his state. Prior to legalization in 2014, Colorado didn’t keep track of statistics like the number of people caught driving under the influence of marijuana.
Without a baseline, Pabon said, it’s been hard to determine increases or decreases on things like the number of people driving while high. To that end, he told the New Jersey lawmakers they should start collecting data “tomorrow”.
One the other side of the debate, Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization staunchly opposed to recreational cannabis, also said there’s not enough data available at this point to know much about the proclaimed successes from states that have legalized cannabis.
3. There’s a great deal of money to be made
Rarely a conversation about marijuana legalization in New Jersey passes without the discussion of money. Monday’s hearing was no different.
The prevailing estimate is that New Jersey’s recreational marijuana industry would be worth about $1 billion per year. Some testimony on Monday suggested that estimate could be low.
“It’s not about college dorm rooms and Grateful Dead concerts anymore,” Sabet said. “It’s about Wall Street. It’s about profits.”
Bridget Hill-Zayat, a cannabis attorney with the Hoban Law Group in Philadelphia, told lawmakers that the recreational cannabis industry in the United States is already worth $10 billion per year. Should New Jersey legalize, that number would surely increase.
4. Forget Colorado — New Jersey could be an industry leader
Federal prohibition of marijuana has meant that federal funding for cannabis research has been lacking over the last several decades. As states have started legalizing recreational marijuana, research has picked up, albeit slowly.
Caruso suggested that New Jersey, with its history in the pharmaceutical industry, should position itself to take a leading role in cannabis research.
“New Jersey sits on the precipice of doing something phenomenal,” he said. “We have the ability to populate our labs again.”
5. The black market is a problem
Todd Raybuck, a police officer from Las Vegas who is against legal weed, said that in the months since Nevada’s recreational marijuana market went live last summer, said he’s seen a significant increase in black market marijuana.
People in Nevada are allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and Raybuck said this provides cover for street dealers who continue to operate on the Las Vegas Strip. But marijuana isn’t the only substance he’s seen increase on the streets.
“Cocaine seizures are up…without an increase in police activity,” he said.
6. This is just the start of the debate
Before the hearing on Monday began, Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, announced that there would be three more hearings in the coming weeks spread across the state. Hearings will be held in the northern, southern and central regions of the states, Danielsen said.
Two hearings have already been scheduled, starting with one on April 21 at Rowan University and another on May 12 at Bergen County Community College. The Central Jersey location has not been determined.
Andre Malok | NJ Advance Media
What happens next?
At the beginning of Monday’s hearing, Danielsen was quick to point out that it wasn’t being held in relation to a specific bill, even though recreational marijuana bills have been introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate.
Action on the bills in either house is expected to be on hold, at least until after a review of the state’s medical marijuana program — ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy — is completed in the next several weeks.