While New Jersey tinkers at the fringes of drug-policy reform, other states are taking bold steps forward.
In New Jersey, the Assembly has approved a proposed law to decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana — just over half an ounce — and make it a summary offense similar to a parking ticket.
Even if the Senate follows suit this fall, however, the measure is headed for an unconditional veto by Gov. Chris Christie. For him to do other than veto it, Christie said, would be “a tacit approval to our children that (marijuana) is somehow not as bad anymore.”
Fourteen other states have taken that alleged risk and decriminalized pot. Mississippi, for instance, despite being a traditional home of ultraconservative social policies, allows its citizens to possess up to an ounce without risking the lifelong stigma of an arrest record.
Then there’s Colorado, where voters in November will decide whether to go beyond simple decriminalization. They’ll decide whether to adopt Amendment 64, which would legalize, license, regulate and tax the production, sale and use of marijuana in the same manner as alcohol. Voters in Oregon and Washington also will vote on legalization measures.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder of Drug Policy Alliance, whose 10-year-old New Jersey office has been in the forefront of drug law reform here, writes that if marijuana were legally regulated nationally, “criminal organizations would lose billions in profits while governments would reap billions in law-enforcement savings and tax revenue. Cannabis consumers would no longer be treated as criminals. And the separation of cannabis markets from other illicit drug markets would reduce the number of cannabis users who go on to use more dangerous drugs.”
It must be pointed out that even if Coloradoans approve Amendment 64 — a recent poll showed 47 percent favor it, with 38 percent against — implementing it will be another matter. Federal law bans the production, manufacture, transportation and distribution of marijuana, and federal criminal prosecution would remain a threat regardless of state law.
On the other hand, advocates argue that the U.S. Justice Department’s willingness to live with medical-marijuana laws in several states (including New Jersey, which is just beginning its program after a lengthy delay) suggests that the feds would be tolerant of a broader law as well. They also believe approval of Amendment 64 would be a powerful statement in favor of making national drug policy consistent with the policy on booze, which many experts consider more hazardous to individuals and society than marijuana.
Unfortunately, we in New Jersey can only look on while other states make such decisions. These are states with the initiative process, which allows citizens to place proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot by petition. New Jersey’s constitution gives the voters no direct role in policymaking, and there’s not a hint of a sign at the Statehouse of any sentiment for change.
Last week, the New Jersey Senate gave final legislative approval to the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act and sent it to Gov. Christie. The act encourages persons who witness a drug overdose to summon medical help by giving them limited protection from arrest and prosecution on drug-possession charges. Overdosing is the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey, and the measure is strongly backed by families of drug users who died because those who were with them failed to dial 911.
The governor’s views on the bill are unknown — he’s otherwise occupied in Tampa, Fla., this week — but the odds are he’ll send it back to the Legislature with a veto message. Its advocates hope the veto won’t be absolute; overriding such a decision would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and Assembly, and that, in turn, would require some unlikely help from loyal Christie Republicans. They’re hoping, at worst, for a conditional veto in which Christie would specify changes that he wanted and that they could accept.
Their problem is that the office of Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa considers the bill’s promises of immunity too broad and insufficiently clear in some respects. For example, a spokesman has said, officials think that police summoned to the scene of an overdose should be allowed to make arrests, “and if it’s determined that the person falls under the statute, there would be immunity from prosecution.” Supporters of the bill met with Chiesa’s representatives to discuss revisions but couldn’t reach agreement.
“We weren’t quite able to fully understand what they were asking for — it got rather complicated — and so we decided to just run with the bill the way it is,” Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge), a primary sponsor, told me. “If the governor feels strongly enough about what the A.G.’s office thinks, he’ll conditionally veto the bill and make changes to the language for us to consider.
“Look, we’ll have the discussion. It’s not the end of the world. We can figure this out.”

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