As Hawthorne Faces Issue, Experts Weigh In On Policy


Online media, television, newspapers, cafes, and kitchen tables buzz with discussion on the merits and drawbacks to an age-old issue, brought to national attention in a renewed focus with legal, social justice, and public safety ramifications.  The 2017 gubernatorial election brought a contentious plant and all its implications to the intellectual doorstep of New Jersey voters.  Now, in advance of potential decriminalization and the push for full legalization on the state level, municipalities are having their own discussions, and in some cases enacting preemptive legislation.  Residents should be informed, as this is an issue that has brought out varying viewpoints and passionate discussion on all sides. TAPinto Hawthorne is pleased to present for our readers’ consideration the first "TAPinto Hawthorne In-Focus", a regular feature in which we'll delve into the arguments on both sides of an issue with expert opinion and background, with a local focus.  In the first installment, TAPinto Hawthorne takes a deep dive into the arguments for and against marijuana legalization.  As Hawthorne's residents and town leaders consider and discuss the potential effects of marijuana legalization on our town, our hope is that this article provides context and facts to inform and elevate that discussion.

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As it stands at the time of this writing, the Drug Enforcement Agency lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug and it is currently illegal to possess, sell, and distribute according to federal law.  What is a Schedule I or Schedule II drug?  The DEA defines those as follows:

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote.

Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous. Some examples of Schedule II drugs are: Combination products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit (Vicodin), cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin.

The states, however, have come to challenge the federal government in the case of the flowering herb, a plant whose genus is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and central Asia, and used by human societies since prehistoric times for various purposes, according to archeologists.

As of 2018, the following have legalized medical marijuana laws in place:

Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia.

As of 2018, the following have legalized recreational marijuana laws in place:

Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, DC.

It is projected that legalized marijuana would bring a billion-dollar industry into the state, according to a report by Brach Eichler, LLP.  “Most cannabis taxation models maximize sales tax and minimize application and licensing fees as a means of encouraging entry and proliferation – and State income taxes are a bonus. But New Jersey has a unique opportunity to front-load its revenues at a time of fiscal peril and enormous revenue shortage by creating an industry with fewer players who compete for licenses through a bidding process that could generate $1 billion in upfront cash from players in everything from cultivation to distribution to data management to testing to you-name-it. The Murphy Administration might have its sights set on social justice, but it also can’t avoid looking at the cash register – and the temptation will be very large to monetize the industry upfront."

The commercialization of marijuana is something that Ordinance 2207-18 would stop in Hawthorne, should Governor Murphy get his way.  Commercialization is the element which organizations like New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy want to oppose.

“NJ-RAMP is a coalition of people who have concerns with legalization and commercialization.  We have no problem with medical marijuana or decriminalization,” said Jeanette Hoffman, spokesperson for NJ-RAMP.  NJ-RAMP opposes the normalization and commercialization of marijuana, seeing it as a detriment to society, public health, and law enforcement.  “Data from Colorado is troubling, data from car crashes is troubling.  Arrests have doubled.  Towns in New Jersey need to protect themselves like Point Pleasant, Hasbrouck Heights, and Garfield,” she said, referring to other municipalities which have passed ordinances against marijuana sales.  “We think that this will continue.”

Timothy White, a spokesman for the NJ Cannabis Industry Association, thinks that municipalities should not preemptively miss out on economic opportunity.  “Obviously towns have the right to regulate the commerce within their borders, and we respect that.  We encourage governments to take a look at this opportunity before passing legislation.  We don’t know exactly what this industry will look like.  They have the right to ban these in the future, but it seems premature.”

“If you look at public health outreach, we have done a lot of work showing adverse effects on children,” said Hoffman.  “Smoking is a known public health risk.  Marijuana is taking a play from Big Tobacco.  Edibles, soda, et cetera, appeal to children.  Data collected nationally shows significant health problems, with homelessness, strains on public services, impaired driving.”

Both Ocean and Monmouth County passed resolutions, which carry no actual legal weight, in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana.  On February 7, Ocean County Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little claimed that marijuana was more addictive than cocaine.  After coming under scathing public criticism, he retracted his statement, saying it was “inaccurate.”  Nevertheless, communities along the Jersey Shore such as Middletown, Berkeley Township, Point Pleasant Beach, Lavallette, Oceanport, Seaside Heights, and West Long Branch have placed their own preemptive bans on the books.  Many of those towns are popular tourist and vacation destinations whose populations swell during the summer with out-of-town visitors. 

While the outsider or non-resident might not think New Jersey is a tourism state, such a notion could not be farther from the truth.  The Jersey Shore relies heavily on tourism dollars, which marijuana opponents and advocates have taken positions on.  “Are people going to want to go with marijuana being openly used?”  Hoffman asked.  “Denver has seen a loss in tourism dollars [since legalization].”

When Council Vice President Bertollo at the February 7 meeting said, “Everything we’ve learned from experts in the field is that marijuana is a gateway drug to harder and harsher drugs,” Councilman Bruce Bennett asked if he got his facts from the 1936 propaganda movie “Reefer Madness.”  Bertollo did not take the remark kindly, firing back, “Don’t insult me with those comments!”

But in matters of public policy, public perception is king.

“Most people don’t take ‘Reefer Madness’ seriously anymore, but a lot of past generations did rely on propaganda like that to inform them.  That it should be classified with cocaine and heroin is misinformed,” White said, referring to the remarks by Ocean County Freeholder Little.

While groups like NJ-RAMP assert that legalization would mean an increase in crime and driving under the influence, others contest that point of view.  “There is no direct correlation to the rise of crime, even incidental, in the states which have legalized marijuana,” said White.  “It’s a combination of socially conservative folks and some pharmaceutical interests who would benefit with regards to pain medication.  We have seen opposition from the alcohol industry who see legalization as an industry threat.”

Anti-legalization groups have often asserted that it would be undesirable for communities to have marijuana tourism emerge in the event of legalization.  People from neighboring states such as New York and Pennsylvania would come into New Jersey to buy legal marijuana, an economic boon to some, and a social ill to others where recreational weed seeks to create a base of addicted consumers.

Is the cannabis industry looking to emulate the tobacco industry?  “I look at tobacco and marijuana as separate,” White said.  “When you look at the hundreds of chemicals and carcinogens in cigarettes, it is being addressed specifically.  I don’t see a lot of credible comparisons compared to regulation and how transparent the cannabis industry will be.  It’s a more controlled environment.”

“It’s 2018, not 1918,” Bennett told TAPinto Hawthorne, drawing comparisons between alcohol sales and marijuana.  “We didn’t learn a darn thing from prohibition: ruining lives, creating crime.  A hundred years have passed and we haven’t learned anything.  Marijuana is less addictive than alcohol and has valid medical uses.  I can’t think of any medical value to drinking alcohol.”  When asked what his political philosophy was, the former Democrat-turned-Republican replied, “I’ve often been accused of being libertarian.  My philosophy has always been that our responsibility is to protect us from each other, not ourselves.”

The language of the ordinance states that the council found no place within the borough safe for any business to store and sell medical or recreational marijuana, a point with which Bennett took issue.  “The reason for the wording was that it was done specifically to make this a zoning ordinance.  It was a way around the state, to create a zoning ordinance which wouldn’t violate any discrimination laws.  They can make a zoning law to exclude anything they don’t want.”

The debate on legalization also carries a weighty social justice element with it, a factor which towns might easily side-step through zoning legislation, but one which does not address what is, to some, an elephant in the room.

While Hawthorne has a small African-American population, less than 4%, the municipal debates on legalization or prohibition are part of a state-wide and national discussion on which populations are most impacted.  James Eaddy, an activist speaking at the Impact of Marijuana on Communities of Color in New Jersey panel discussion in Branchburg, February 28, said that the current marijuana laws “are tearing up our community” and shatter families, creating a host of social problems.

Lawrence Hamm, a spokesman for the People’s Organization for Progress, echoed these sentiments, stating the marijuana reform is an opportunity for social justice.  “I have been in the prisons, it is like a black concentration camp.  Some of the prisoners who come to listen to me come on canes and walkers….  America has the highest prison population in the world, more than China, more than Iran, more than Russia.”

According to the World Prison Brief, the United States has 2,145,100 prisoners, approximately half a million more than China.  China’s population is 18.5% of the world, compared to the United States which comprises 4.3% of the global population.

State Senator Ronald L. Rice, Chairman of the NJ Legislative Black Caucus, supports decriminalization.  The senator found an ally with NJ-RAMP’s Rory Wells, Esq., former Ocean County Prosecutor, with regards to commercialization.  “When you legalize something, you get more of it.”  He railed against companies seeking to exploit and profit off of the black community.

“We want to protect our way of life,” Wells said.

An addiction psychiatrist from Rutgers University, Dr. Calvin Chatlos, stated that the legalization of marijuana would bring revenues, but it would also end up costing the state more than what it took in when accounting for decreased work productivity, the administration of the new industry, hospitalization and medical services increases, and other negative aspects associated with usage.

White asserted that the marijuana industry can bring benefits with a new base of jobs, most of which are out of public view.  “Most people automatically think of a dispensary but don’t think of cultivation, extraction, and such which are usually set back out of view and you would never know what these businesses are from the outside.  Other than some added security, there is no visual detriment to the community.  They generate a lot of tax revenues and when towns say no, they are saying no to all aspects of the industry.”

“We support the efforts of municipalities to regulate the commerce in their towns and protect the quality of life by banning the sale of recreational marijuana.  We would urge residents who have concerns to contact their legislators and the governor,” Hoffman said.

Councilman Bennett said that public safety was his chief concern and noted that both medical as well as recreational marijuana was prohibited by Ordinance 2207-18.  “They took a conservative approach: complete prohibition.  I raised the point that if someone buys it legally in town, they can use it privately.  If they wanted to ban it out in public, I’m good with that.  If it’s legal we should regulate it.  This ban is not going to keep people from using it, it’s fear-mongering.  I said that the users are already obtaining it illegally.  Establishing a proper dispensary would remove the problem.  They will know it is safe, they’ll know what is in it, and it’ll remove the criminal element….  The state will implement strict regulations on storage which any dispensary would have to comply with.  Who better than our own pharmacies?”

In any event, Wednesday's council meeting may prove to be the forum which determines whether the ordinance is permanently written into law on the spot, or if the conversation will continue, ultimately decided by the people, as Councilman Wojtecki proposes.


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