Even before Covid-19, New Jersey faced major challenges, with huge debt weighing down its budget, a sluggish economy, and high property and income taxes driving a continuing exodus from the state. But the pandemic slammed Jersey even harder: the state has the nation’s highest death rate per capita from the virus and faces a Covid-induced budget deficit far larger than that of most states.
Yet somehow, amid these many challenges, Jersey’s leaders have decided that legalizing marijuana—with all the risks and uncertainties that it involves—should be a top policy priority. Supporters are pitching it as a budget booster, a social justice imperative, and even a jobs program for minority communities. Yet few of these benefits have materialized to the extent that supporters claim in states that have already legalized pot, while bad outcomes, from rising crime to a growing black market, are clearly apparent. Worse, health officials have been warning for months about the dangers of smoking—including smoking pot—in a world still dealing with a respiratory-virus pandemic. What can New Jersey’s leaders possibly be thinking?
Key Jersey Democrats, including Governor Phil Murphy, have been trying to legalize pot for three years now, and they’re more determined than ever, even though many others in their party are uneasy with legalization. Minority legislators worry about the impact of legal pot on their communities. State Senator Ron Rice from Newark, a black former cop in the state’s largest city, and a coalition of church leaders point out that several dozen mostly suburban communities across New Jersey have already voted against allowing pot sales in their towns. Thus, the legal trade would likely be concentrated mostly in urban settings. Republicans, many of whom represent those suburban communities, have also lined up against legalization. As an alternative to creating an entire legal industry backed by big investors and sophisticated marketing of cannabis, Rice has proposed decriminalizing pot so that users don’t get prosecuted. But his bill has gotten little traction among fellow Democrats.
Supporters of legalization are pursuing a strategy that’s proved successful in nine other states: putting the question of legalizing pot for recreational use to voters, in Jersey’s case through Public Question 1, which will appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment on November 3. Advocates argue that only full legalization will achieve their social-justice ends and make amends for the harm they say has been done to minority communities by years of arresting and prosecuting pot users. With legalization, they argue, the state will see an end to the black market for pot and the violence that goes along with it, as well as the emergence of a new industry that can help spur economic growth in minority communities. “People want the economic justice, job creation and equity, and those are things that only come with legalization,” says Amol Sinha, who is leading the pro-legalization campaign as head of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s an appealing narrative. In a poll last spring, some 61 percent of Jersey voters said that they would support a legalization initiative. The most common reason given was stamping out the black market, followed by the promises of new jobs and tax revenues.
But recreational pot is already legal in a dozen states, and it’s clear that legalization rarely plays out the way voters think it will. The most common misconception about legalization is that the black market will disappear, though in several states the exact opposite has occurred: the illegal market has grown larger, and drug-related violence has increased. Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational pot use. Two years ago, the United States Attorney for the District of Colorado, Bob Troyer, wrote a disturbing op-ed in the Denver Post about the ongoing war against the illegal market in the state. “Colorado’s black market has actually exploded after commercialization: we have become a source state, a theater of operation for sophisticated international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations from Cuba, China, Mexico, and elsewhere,” he pointed out. The state’s legal industry, he said, was producing several tons of pot every year that went unaccounted for and apparently landed in the black market, where it can be sold more cheaply than drugs regulated and taxed by the government. In 2017 alone, Troyer’s office found more than 80,000 illegal pot plants, destined for the black market, growing on federal land in Colorado. Even after legalization, the illegal market remained so appealing that state authorities busted owners of a chain of pot stores for supplying the black market. In 2018 in Oregon, which legalized pot in 2012, federal authorities arrested a black-market pot ring also accused of kidnapping, money laundering, and possession of illegal firearms. Their business was apparently thriving even as legal weed went unbought, leading to an oversupply of pot equivalent to 1 billion joints.
With the black market has come continued violence as gangs jockey for a share of a still-lucrative business. At 2018 hearings held by Rice in New Jersey, a Las Vegas police captain testified that violence related to drug trafficking has increased since the state legalized pot. “In 2017, homicides related to an altercation over drugs grew by 21 percent, compared to 2016,” Captain Todd Raybuck said. “Marijuana was the cause of the altercation in 53 percent of those homicides. In 2017, 58 percent of all drug-related murders involved marijuana.” Something similar has happened in Denver. There, a local police lieutenant told the press that illegal growers were hiding within the legal market, fighting for a share of it. “In 2017, we had seven homicides directly connected to marijuana growers,” Lieutenant Andrew Howard said. “I would love to be able to shift some of my resources away from marijuana to other things, but right now the violence is marijuana or marijuana-related.”
The absurdity of what follows legalization is perhaps epitomized by demands made by legal sellers in California. They had pitched legalization as a way to end the war on drugs, but when the black market didn’t dry up after pot became a legal business, the state-approved sellers demanded a new war on drugs. “We are the taxpayers. No one else should be operating,” one licensed grower complained in a New York Times story about the Golden State’s booming illegal pot business. Fittingly, state officials said that they were unsure whether they wanted to start a new war on pot against the illegal growers.
The persistence of the black market also undermines the notion that a legal pot industry will yield a jobs boom for minority communities and for small entrepreneurs operating in them. The main winners from legalization are big companies that can afford the investments in large-scale, sophisticated, efficient operations that allow them to buy and distribute pot at prices competitive with the black market. That’s why we’ve seen the growth of what’s called Big Marijuana—an industry run by well-financed investors intent on aggressively marketing pot and expanding the customer base. They’ve outspent opponents of legalization by four-to-one nationally in order to win legalization.
At the same time, rising pot use after legalization makes users less employable. No matter what New Jersey voters decide, many industries will continue to test job applicants for marijuana use, for safety reasons. Among the industries that test for pot are construction, health care, and public transportation. Federal law also requires that companies with U.S. government contracts test workers. Studies have shown that workers who regularly use pot are more likely to cause workplace accidents, which endanger co-workers and cost companies money. Workers who regularly smoke pot are also, one study found, less committed to their jobs on average than non-users. Another survey found that one in four workers who smoke pot in states where it’s legal admit to going to work high. The problem got so bad in Colorado after legalization that one of the state’s biggest construction companies said that it had to start hiring out-of-state workers who could pass a drug test.
Jersey faces all these risks for what would be at best a modest budget bounce. A legislative estimate of the budget impact of legalization predicts that once the market in the state becomes fully mature, Jersey might collect about $126 million in taxes, in a budget that currently totals $40 billion. Even so, the report warns, it could be years before the state reaches even that modest number, and plenty of risks remain, including from market saturation as other states also legalize.
Along with all these potentially far-reaching consequences, Jersey residents should be shocked that their legislators are proposing legalization in the middle of a pandemic caused by a respiratory disease. In April, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned that smoking marijuana “could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape” because of the damage these activities cause to lungs. Perhaps even more to the point, scientific research has found that cannabis is immunosuppressive, making users more susceptible to certain diseases.
Even in the best of times, pot legalization is a questionable path for a state to follow, one that should include careful consideration of what’s occurred elsewhere. Legalizing marijuana now, as the world faces a deadly infectious disease, is one of the most counterproductive and baffling things Trenton has proposed in decades.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images