TRENTON, N.J. — Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s warning to the Democrat-led Legislature not to move forward with legalizing marijuana is going mostly unheeded.
Christie, a longtime opponent of legalizing the recreational use of the drug, cautioned lawmakers in an impassioned State of the State address aimed at battling the opioid epidemic.
But as the governor charges full-steam ahead with a program to battle drug addiction that got a warm reception from Democratic leaders, he’s getting pushback when it comes to marijuana.
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“He couldn’t have been more off the mark with that portion of his speech,” said Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a top proponent of legalization.
The issue comes to the fore has some are hoping New Jersey will soon join the four states — California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada — that approved marijuana legalization this year, while four others — Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota — voted to establish medical marijuana programs.
New Jersey already has a tightly regulated medical marijuana program that includes six alternative treatment centers, or dispensaries, but the issue has largely stalled because of Christie’s opposition.
Christie won’t sign the legislation, Scutari concedes, but Democrats say they want to lay the groundwork for the new administration, which voters will pick in November.
That groundwork includes introducing legislation in February, followed by hearings as well as a fact-finding mission that Scutari led late last year to Colorado for an up-close look at how regulations and other details are working.
Businesses that could move into New Jersey if legalization goes forward are watching developments with an eager eye.
One such firm is Terra Tech, a marijuana agriculture company. The firm owns Edible Garden, a retailer of locally grown herbs and vegetables.
Terra Tech CEO Derek Peterson said the company is looking to using its facilities to cultivate cannabis in New Jersey and that the firm welcomes the chance to work with regulators.
“(Legalization) will do great things for our economy and residents, and I believe it will happen quickly when the Governor leaves office,” he said.
The candidates for governor have a range of views on marijuana legalization, but none so far have shown the kind of visceral opposition that Christie has displayed.
A top Democratic prospect for governor, Phil Murphy, said he supports legalization. Democratic candidate John Wisniewski, an assemblyman, supports decriminalizing marijuana and creating a legal framework for a market. State Sen. Ray Lesniak says he backs decriminalizing marijuana but isn’t entirely convinced of full legalization. Former Clinton administration official Jim Johnson backs legalization, and former Teaneck fireman and Democratic candidate Bill Brennan is supportive of legalization as well.
Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli, an assemblyman, favors decriminalizing marijuana possession for those who have small amounts, but doesn’t back full-scale legalization. He voted against bills expanding the medical marijuana program.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s spokesperson did not respond to requests on her position. Steven Rogers, a Republican commissioner in Nutley, opposes legalization for recreational marijuana but says he supports medical marijuana programs.
Christie bases his opposition to marijuana legalization on an argument that it’s a gateway drug. In his address Tuesday, he cited statistics that suggested trying any drug leads to a greater chance of becoming an addict.
“I hope that this will give pause to those who are blindly pushing ahead to legalize another illicit drug in our state,” he said.
Legalization supporters, like Scutari, draw different conclusions, arguing that there is no cause and effect relationship between marijuana use and addiction to opioids and other drugs.