TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey lawmakers say they’re concerned about what President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general could mean for marijuana legalization, but they’re still planning to move forward after Gov. Chris Christie’s term ends in 2018.
Donald Trump said during the campaign he favors letting states decide whether marijuana should be legalized, but he recently invited Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who opposes legalizing recreational marijuana and said in April that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” to lead the Justice Department.
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“It seems like he’s extremely anti-legalization,” said Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the leader of the legalization effort in the Legislature. “I can only take President-elect Trump at his word when he said it should be a state’s right issue.”
The issue comes to the forefront after Election Day when four states — California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada– approved marijuana legalization, 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 in New Jersey because of the Republican governor’s resolute opposition.
This week on his regular radio call-in show, the governor criticized a resident who called him the only impediment to legalization. Christie argued that approving marijuana would clear the way for cocaine and heroin legalization, which has not been proposed, and said he would not agree to “poisoning” young people for the potential tax revenues.
“To me, legalization of marijuana for tax purposes — and that’s the only way people justify it because you can’t justify it any other way — is blood money,” Christie said. “That’s what it is to me.”
Scutari acknowledges that it’s unlikely Christie would ever sign the bill, which has not been reintroduced yet this year, but says he plans to begin the hearing process in the coming weeks to lay the groundwork for when Christie leaves office.
A top Democratic prospect for governor, Phil Murphy, said he supports legalization.
Democratic candidate John Wisniewski, an assemblyman, has voted to expand the state’s medical marijuana program. His campaign manager said he supports decriminalizing marijuana and creating a legal framework for a market.
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.
Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is considering a run, hasn’t weighed in on the issue. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to questions on expansion.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has said he is open to considering legalization. His fellow Democrat, Senate President Steve Sweeney, sounded open to the idea and said he’s taking his lead from Scutari. “When Nick’s ready to roll, we’re going to roll,” he said.
But not everyone with a vote is on board. Beyond Christie, who’ll be out of office at the latest in January 2018 when his term ends, several lawmakers are reluctant to sign off on expansion.
Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale, who chairs the health committee, said not enough evidence from Colorado, Washington and other states where recreational marijuana is legal has been analyzed. He also said the potential for a revenue cash cow in budget-strapped New Jersey is not enough to authorize its use.
Part of the debate has also centered on decriminalizing the drug’s use, with the aim of keeping lower-income men and women out of jail. Vitale sees this as a key distinction and said he backs decriminalization but not full-scale legalization.
“Legalizing a drug, I believe, is just a wrong direction to go,” Vitale said.