As New Jersey legislators consider a marijuana decriminalization bill, a new poll suggests strong public support for such a move -- and more. The poll of likely voters conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Drug Policy Alliance found that 61% favored decriminalization and nearly as many (59%) agreed with taxing, regulating, and legalizing marijuana.
[image:1 align:left]"New Jersey voters are ready for aggressive and immediate change of state marijuana laws, with strong majorities supporting decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana," said Daniel Gotoff, a partner at Lake Research. "Support for this reform is remarkably broad, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans, as well as voters from every major region in the state."
The poll comes as the legislature is considering Senate Bill 1977, which would decriminalize the possession of up to 50 grams (slightly less than two ounces) of marijuana and make possession a civil violation carrying a fine similar to a traffic ticket. The bill sponsored by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union), Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The release of the poll could be designed to prod the legislature to act on marijuana reform. SB 1977 was filed more than a year ago and still has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. Another measure, Assembly Bill 1465, which would decriminalize up to 15 grams, actually passed the Assembly last June, only to languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee ever since.
Under current New Jersey law, simple marijuana possession is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Conviction on a pot possession charges also creates a criminal record that cannot be expunged for at least five years.
Once an individual is convicted of even a minor possession offense, he or she is subject to a system of legal discrimination that makes it difficult or impossible to secure housing, employment, public assistance, federal student aid for higher education, and even a basic driver's license.
Marijuana possession prosecutions also disproportionately target the Garden State's black population. African-Americans are arrested for pot possession at a rate nearly three times that of whites, even though both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate.
"More than 22,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2010 at a cost of more than $125 million dollars," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "New Jerseyans understand that current penalties for marijuana are unfair and wasteful. These laws should be changed now. "
If legislators heed the popular will and pass the decriminalization bill, New Jersey will join 15 other states that have decriminalized pot possession in amounts ranging from half an ounce to three ounces.
If Maine residents want to legalize marijuana via the popular vote, they may have to do it themselves. Last Friday, a bill that would have called for a referendum on marijuana legalization fell four votes short in the House. On Monday, it was defeated more decisively in the Senate.
[image:1 align:right]The bill, LD 1229, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), was a detailed tax, regulate, and legalize marijuana measure when first introduced. But, with a lack of support among colleagues, the bill was amended to merely call for a popular referendum. Even that watered down version couldn't pass the House.
During debate on the bill last Friday, Russell argued that if legislators failed to act, it was likely that activists would put a legalization initiative before voters through the citizens' initiative process, and that then, lawmakers would have no say.
"I believe this is the smartest, most rational way forward… to ensure we're the ones driving the bus to do it," Russell said.
Support for and opposition to the bill wasn't a simple party line affair, with some Republicans speaking for it and some Democrats opposing.
"We have a society that’s been hypocritically fighting this war for years," said Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington). "In a democratic republic, the will of the people will be expressed."
"I have seen lives ruined by addiction," said Rep Gay Grant (D-Gardiner). "I am not ready to raise the white flag on one more opportunity to destroy lives."
"You actually can't smoke enough marijuana to kill yourself. You’d fall asleep first," said Rep. Corey Wilson (R-Augusta), who argued that prohibition had failed and that the state should consider collecting taxes on marijuana to help fight more dangerous drugs.
With Maine activists eyeing the presidential election year of 2016 for a citizens' legalization initiative, the legislature still has a couple of years to act. If it doesn't, Mainers may well make the decision themselves.
At the behest of Social Affairs and Health Minister Marisol Touraine, France has modified its Public Health Code to allow for the use of marijuana-based medicines, apparently including raw marijuana itself. Decree n° 2013-473 was published Friday, removing what had been a prohibition on all non-industrial use of the plant.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]The code modification makes legal "the production, transport, export, possession, offering, acquisition or use of specialty pharmaceuticals that contains one of these (cannabis-derivative) substances." But individual marijuana-based medicines must still be approved by the National Medical Safety Agency.
How exactly the law will be implemented remains to be seen. That will be up to Minister Touraine, who will ratify the decree in coming weeks.
While the law appears to clear the way for marijuana-based medicines such as the sublingual spray Sativex and the old marijuana substitute Marinol (Cesamet), it could also allow for the use of raw marijuana produced under strict conditions for medical purposes, such as that produced by Bedrocan in the Netherlands.
But it could take awhile.
"The law allows us above all to unblock the process of launching research into cannabinoids," Pharmacists' Union spokesperson Philippe Gaertner told the online publication StreetPress. "I'm not sure we’ll have these medicines on the market quickly."
Other European countries that allow for some form of therapeutic cannabis include Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]