A close-up of Colorado weed grown by the Denver Relief shop. (Kathryn Scott Osler, Denver Post file)

New Jersey marijuana legalization talk revs up; is Christie clash ahead?

Updated Nov. 24, 2015 at 4:25 p.m.

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature took a step toward a showdown with Gov. Chris Christie over legalized marijuana on Monday.

A state Senate panel convened a hearing on legalizing the drug, and a leading Democratic lawmaker says it’s time to bring it out of an underground economy by legalizing, taxing and regulating it.

“I believe our state should lead the way,” Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari said. Scutari, who has authored a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for people over 21, sketched a scenario in which the drug comes out of what he called a “black market” and gives way to a billion-dollar industry.

But the issue comes as Christie, who is seeking the GOP nomination for president, has repeatedly underscored his opposition to legalizing marijuana, viewing it as a gateway to the abuse of other drugs. But he is in favor of treating addicted drug users.

“As a former federal prosecutor, I’ve been the most outspoken person in this race on this issue,” Christie said in a recent interview with Laura Ingraham. “I am completely, 100 percent opposed to drug legalization; that’s different than being for treatment.”

Advocates of legalization on Monday cast the issue as a civil rights question that could help ease the disproportionate arrest of black residents. Udi Ofer, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey, alluded to video of Christie talking passionately about getting drug addicts help and said there’s a disconnect in the governor’s positions.

“Here we have a governor who talks about how the war on drugs has failed,” Ofer said. “Yet we have seen arrests increase over time. There’s an inconsistency there.”

Christie has been a longtime advocate for drug treatment and certain judicial reforms. Under a program he championed, nonviolent drug-addicted offenders in the state can be sentenced to mandatory participation in drug treatment programs rather than get jail time.

The witnesses at the hearing, where there was an occasional interruption by applause from the public, were mostly supportive of legalization. Republican lawmakers questioned why opponents were not invited to the hearing. Scutari said lawmakers would hear from opponents at a later hearing.

Marijuana has been legalized for all uses in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska and for medical use in nearly 20 others, including New Jersey.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana law is among the most restrictive, with patients and caregivers required to register with the state and each pay a $200 fee.

There are five dispensaries. A sixth is pending.

Updated Nov. 24 at 4:25 p.m. The following corrected information has been added to this article: Because of an error by The Associated Press, this article previously misreported which parties are responsible for a $200 fee; patients and caregivers are required to pay this fee.