LINDEN, NJ — Linden officials are preparing for New Jersey’s possible legalization of recreational marijuana, establishing a committee to examine the potential impact of the move and whether the municipality should permit the sale of the drug within city limits.
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has made the legalization for those 21 and older a “2018 priority.”
A bill to allow possession and recreational use was introduced in the state Senate earlier this year by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who represents Linden and serves as the city’s municipal prosecutor.
Councilman Peter Brown is one of three members on a Linden ad hoc committee created Nov. 21 by the city council to investigate the potential social, economic and quality-of-life impact of marijuana legalization in Linden.
“There’s a lot of issues with this bill and questions that need to be asked,” said Brown, who plans to fund a trip to Colorado and California through his nonprofit to learn how marijuana legalization has impacted communities in those states.
Scutari would have to reintroduce the measure in the new legislative session beginning in January. Scutari said the language of that future bill still needs to be finalized.
As a municipal prosecutor in Linden, he has seen how current marijuana laws are “creating drug dealers” since “people are smoking and ingesting marijuana each and every day.”
“It’s ridiculous they’re considering this issue,” Scutari said, referring to the Linden City Council. He added that council members should focus on local issues like property taxes or potholes instead of a statewide issue like legalization.
Scutari noted that Linden can opt out of having a dispensary that sells recreational marijuana. He said licenses for the dispensaries will be “highly competitive” and awarded by the state.
Under the language of Scutari’s current bill, municipalities with dispensaries would receive a 3 percent sales tax after three years, which would climb from 1 percent in the first year. Even if Linden opts out of having a dispensary, residents would still be able to use marijuana in the city if Scutari’s legislation passes.
But Brown, the councilman, questioned whether revenue generated by a 3 percent sales tax would outweigh Linden’s cost to enforce, monitor or address issues related to recreational use.
His committee plans to call on local agencies to examine issues such as traffic and pedestrian safety, and how a dispensary near a school would impact the district, Brown said.
“If you have people who are under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, it’s increasing the risk of” accidents, Brown said.
A study released in June by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that collision claims in some states where marijuana is legal were 3 percent higher than in states without it.
State Assemblyman Anthony Bucco has introduced legislation requiring police to obtain blood samples from people suspected of drug-impaired driving although research shows that traces of marijuana can show up in blood tests weeks after a person consumes the drug.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities had some questions about the bill, too. “Mayors are not universal on” agreeing to legalize marijuana, said Michael Darcy, the league’s executive director, in a phone interview.
“There’s a lot of implementation issues — social issues aside and philosophy aside,” Darcy said. “If you were to implement legalizing marijuana, there’s just technical concerns, from regulating it, to taxing it, to making it available within a hundred feet of a school.”
A committee created by the league to review the introduced legislation opposes the current bill, Darcy said.
“There are many pros and cons associated with the legalization and/or decriminalization of marijuana here in the State of New Jersey,” Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said in a statement.
A spokesman for Armstead said the mayor would “draw his opinion” on legalization or decriminalization after city’s committee has further reviewed the issue.
New Jersey United Marijuana Reform is a group of public safety, medical, civil rights, faith and political organizations that says legalizing and taxing marijuana will reduce “harms” caused by the current laws.
Dianna Houenou, a founding member of NJUMR who also serves as policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said current laws disproportionately affect minorities. The severe penalties in drug-free school zones affect people in densely populated areas, where there are more schools, she added.
If similar laws applied to legal dispensaries, “that means that marijuana businesses are effectively banned in an entire city,” she said.
The group is also concerned with “making sure that the licenses and licensing qualifications aren’t burdensome so that it doesn’t benefit or privilege out-of-state interests.”
NJUMR would like to see additions to the bill, including automatic expungement for convictions of possession of small amounts of marijuana. The current bill would not allow people to grow marijuana, something else NJUMR would like to see change, Houenou said.
Murphy, the governor-elect, has pledged to sign a marijuana legalization bill in his first 100 days of office.
Brown plans to have the research results of Linden’s committee available around February or March.