Discussions on legal and medical cannabis have put New Jersey firmly in the spotlight recently as the battle among lawmakers played out at the New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference held in the Atlantic City Convention Center.
New Jersey has had a somewhat complicated relationship with cannabis. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2010 with the approval and signature of former Governor Jon S. Corzine. However, then-Governor-elect Chris Christie took office soon after, with many misgivings about the newly inaugurated medical cannabis program.
The program got off to a bumpy start and, even as it began to take shape, continued to face setbacks and difficulties. It took more than two years for the first dispensary to open, but with an explosion of patients, the dispensary, or “alternative treatment center,” eventually decided to serve North Jersey residents only. In September 2013, with no other dispensaries operating and with patients growing desperate, New Jersey health officials faced a lawsuit.
Chris Christie, now quite notorious for his anti-cannabis rhetoric, was rumored to have intentionally caused delays in the implementation of the medical marijuana program. In December of 2013, he refused to sign a bill that would have allowed patients to visit other legal states and bring back the medicine that they couldn’t legally access in their home state.
By 2014, patients had grown so desperate that many families began to relocate, and wave after wave of “medical refugees” descended upon Colorado in search of the medicinal marijuana they needed.
Five years into New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, five out of the six allotted dispensaries have opened in New Jersey, but patients still face restrictive eligibility requirements in order to qualify.
This week, however, the conversation took a turn towards legalization. The state held its first public hearing on legalizing marijuana, with strong support from some unexpected sources. Aside from the usual patients and civil rights advocates, members of law enforcement were vocal about supporting the idea.
Lieutenant Nick Bucci, a former narcotics detective turned member of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), spoke during the New Jersey Senate Committee hearing about the long-lasting effects that fighting the drug war has had on his life, as well as his regrets.
“I’ve spent most of my career fighting the failed war on drugs, and I have seen the message that enforcement of our harsh marijuana law sends: if we catch you experimenting, we will do everything we can to ruin your future.”
His remarks echo the sentiments of the majority of New Jerseyans. According to a recent poll conducted by Rutgers-Eagleton, 58 percent of New Jersey respondents support legalizing, taxing, and regulating cannabis like alcohol for anyone over the age of 21 years old, even as arrests for marijuana possession are on the rise in the Garden State.
Despite past protestations of Governor Chris Christie, he recently signed a piece of legislation into law allowing a New Jersey teen to access her medicinal cannabis oil on school grounds while still offering legal protection to the schools, which are subject to federal funding.
Is that an indication of a change of heart? Or was it signed on a whim? Either way, New Jersey is on the forefront and looking towards 2016 with a lot of cannabis questions.