This past week Phil Murphy was inaugurated as the 56th Governor of New Jersey. In his first official speech, Governor Murphy promised to make the legalization of cannabis a reality in the state. When you consider over 60% of New Jersey’s population favors legalization and the president of the New Jersey Senate, Stephen Sweeney, is a staunch supporter of legalizing cannabis, New Jersey has just become the newest legalization juggernaut among US states.
“A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces comprehensive criminal justice reform comprehensively, and that includes a process to legalize marijuana,” he said Tuesday.
“Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.”
– Mark Twain
Murphy frames his support for cannabis legalization primarily as a means of combating mass incarceration and racial disparities in criminal justice. But, there is also a fiscal component to his pitch: By some estimates, a legal cannabis market could provide New Jersey with an additional $300 million in revenue by 2020. Given New Jersey’s pension obligations, multiple public-sector needs, and already-high property and income taxes, the revenue argument for bringing the cannabis trade into the mainstream economy may prove the most lucid and persuasive of all.
Murphy, 60, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, pledged to help foster a “stronger and fairer” New Jersey that creates higher-wage jobs, increases public-school funding, provides free access to community college, helps small businesses and ensures the wealthiest pay “their fair share” in taxes. He also spoke of legalizing cannabis and creating housing that is affordable and safe from lead.
“With the challenges facing our state and its people, our leadership and vision must once again align,” Murphy said. “For too long, too much has been done only for the short-term and only from self-interest.”
Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari also introduced a measure allowing the recreational use of marijuana on Tuesday, the same day the new session of the Democrat-led Legislature convened and Murphy was sworn in.
And in a surprise to some last week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo took a more tentative step toward making cannabis legal to residents of New York. In his annual address on the state budget on Tuesday, Cuomo implored lawmakers to fund a “feasibility study,” which would examine the costs, benefits, and legal risks of legalizing the recreational use of cannabis.
“This is an important topic,” Cuomo said, “and it would be nice to have some facts in the middle of the debate.” Cuomo’s proposed study would be conducted by the state’s Health Department.
Cuomo’s decision to consider a change of heart is likely driven by the same combination of public opinion and budget pressure that’s pushing New Jersey toward legal cannabis. In November, a poll from Emerson College found that 62 percent of New Yorkers approved of legalizing cannabis for adult use. The survey also showed that taxing sales of legal cannabis was a far more popular way of closing the state’s $4.4 billion budget deficit than higher taxes, new tolls, or reduced education spending.
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”
In addition, the case for legalizing cannabis is plenty strong, irrespective of its economic benefits. It simply does not make public-policy sense to create an unregulated black market for a popular substance that is less addictive, less fatal, and less likely to cause traffic accidents than alcohol. Bringing cannabis into the mainstream economy would take a major profit source away from violent drug cartels, while allowing American police to spend less time disrupting the lives of cannabis users and more time policing violent crime. In 2014, there were 700,993 cannabis arrests in the U.S., roughly 90 percent of which were attributed solely to possession. Such arrests aren’t merely a waste of law enforcement’s time and resources; they also perpetuate racial bias in America’s criminal-justice system.
White and black Americans use cannabis at nearly identical rates, but African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possessing cannabis. Meanwhile, the public-health costs of legalization appear to be fairly minor. In Colorado, the rate of cannabis use among teenagers has actually declined since cannabis was legalized.