Coalition to push for marijuana legalization in New Jersey, starting with educating public

Marijuana should be decriminalized in New Jersey because existing laws waste police resources, unfairly target minorities and leave millions of dollars in potential tax revenue unrealized by relegating it to the black market, a coalition said Wednesday in announcing a public education initiative.

New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform wants to legalize marijuana for people over 21, tax it and regulate its distribution. Among the groups represented at Wednesday's news conference were the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey, the NAACP State Conference of New Jersey and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

NJUMR is focusing its efforts on educating the public about the issue first, before seeking a solution through the ballot box or the Legislature, said William Caruso, former executive director of the state Assembly. Gov. Chris Christie has been an advocate of changing drug laws to allow for more opportunities for treatment instead of incarceration, but he has consistently opposed marijuana legalization and has said he would veto any such bill that arrived on his desk.

"People change their minds," Caruso said. "I'm not saying that's where the governor is or will be, but we can't just stop because somebody has said, 'This is where I am.' It's our job to create a responsible debate. Our goal right now is not the statehouse. Our first job is articulate a message to the voting public, the taxpayers of this state, about what we're trying to accomplish and why."

Police in New Jersey make more than 21,000 arrests for marijuana possession annually, the group said. Those offenses cost about $127 million to prosecute, according to Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.

Marijuana prosecutions affect blacks disproportionately, Smith said: Black New Jerseyans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested, with potential far-ranging consequences including loss of jobs and benefits, loss of student loans and difficulty obtaining future employment. Pot arrests also clog courts and distract law enforcement officials from more serious crimes, coalition members said.

ACLU New Jersey Director Udi Ofer said that based on comparisons to Colorado, which he said reaped between $60 million and $70 million in revenue from legal pot sales in that state's first full year of legalization, New Jersey could expect $100 million or more.

David Nathan, a Princeton-based psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, compared some of the group's goals to previous efforts to educate children about smoking cigarettes — efforts, he said, that have decreased tobacco use.

"That campaign worked, not by making tobacco illegal for adults," he said. "It worked by giving kids realistic, evidence-based, scientific and appropriate education about the harms of smoking and, frankly, making it a lot less cool. That's what we have to do with marijuana."