NJ pro-cannabis activists
Steve Wood, South Jersey Courier-Post ~
 
A group of pro-cannabis activists plan to march to the State House in Trenton on Saturday, to speak out and smoke out.
~
How do you save millions on taxes while bringing millions more to the state economy?
 
The answer could be blowing in the wind Saturday in Trenton where a group of activists plan to march to the State House, speak out and smoke out.
 
Launching what organizers call "the strongest cannabis campaign the state has ever seen," "NJ Spring Smoke Out" is just the beginning in a blaze of pro-marijuana demonstrations set throughout the state this spring, including a return to Trenton on April 20 and to Camden on May 2.
 
While neighboring states like New York and cities like Philadelphia have adopted marijuana decriminalization laws, New Jersey remains one of the last places one would want to be caught smoking marijuana in public recreationally, given its tough stance on the drug.
 
But a call for change is the point of any protest.
 
"It's in the air a little bit," says Jay Lassiter, a prominent marijuana and gay marriage activist living in Cherry Hill. "It's a question of when, not if. As someone who's used to losing half a dozen times before you get the win, we're right where we need to be. ... We're really having a discussion and we're winning that discussion in the court of public opinion."
 
A 48 percent plurality of New Jersey residents polled by Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press last spring supported the legalization of weed, as compared to 47 percent who opposed it. White the state remains divided on marijuana, it also remains tough on users.
 
More than 21,000 New Jerseyans get arrested for it each year at a rate fourth highest among Northeastern states, according to the latest 2012 data compiled by Addiction Treatment. The Garden State and Delaware will likely ascend in that ranking after New York and Connecticut have since decriminalized marijuana.
 
A notable marijuana activist, Willingboro resident Chris Goldstein paid for brazenly blazing at a monthly public protest by the Liberty Bell in 2013, being federally prosecuted for what he and his late attorney William Buckman argued was an expression protected by freedom of speech.
 
The former co-chair of New Jersey National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and current co-chair of Philly NORML was considered blowing smoke, fined $3,000 and ordered to test monthly for marijuana over a two-year probation.
 
But his version of justice came on Oct. 20 when the bill that he, N.A. Poe and then-Councilman Jim Kenney worked on led to "the largest city in the country to legally decriminalize marijuana."
 
Since the ordinance was enacted on Oct. 20, offenders pay only a $25 fine for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana or a $100 fine for consuming it instead of facing jail time, a fine up to $5,000 and a criminal record.
 
"Under this policy, police officers will be able to remain focused on more serious offenses," Kenney said in September. "And many young people will be spared the life-altering consequences of a criminal record, such as limited job prospects, inability to obtain student loans or even join the armed services."
 
From that time to Feb. 28, a total of 218 citations were written for possession or public use of a small amount of weed, the city's Office of Administrative Review told the "Courier-Post."
 
"We're not seeing a slew of citations," says Goldstein, who also writes a "Philly 420" blog for Philly.com. "One of my fears was that instead of 30 citations a month it'd be like 750 citations, but that hasn't happened."
 
"But really even if we arrest 20,000 people, it's a drop in the bucket to the number of people smoking."
 
New Jersey protesters will hope for similarly lax enforcement from police when they light up at 4:20 p.m. opposite of the Statehouse on Saturday, especially since Garden State penalizes offenders harsher than even Pennsylvania's former law, doling out a six-month jail sentence and a maximum $1,000 fine for possessing up to 50 grams of marijuana.
 
A similar event held outside the State House in October had more than 250 participants, about 75 of whom smoked in protest without incident, according to their Facebook event page. As of March 13, nearly 600 people have signed up for the Trenton demonstration.
 
Such rabble rousing led to major reefer reform in the nation's capital last week when Washington, D.C., joined Colorado, Washington, and Alaska in their legalization of marijuana. Legalization is pending in Oregon.
 
"Public displays of consuming marijuana are important for people to see they're just like them," Goldstein says. "Consuming marijuana is the best and worst kept secret in America. Most marijuana consumers are law-abiding citizens. They come from all walks of life in every city in every neighborhood."
 
While legalization shouldn't be seen as a pipe dream, Lassiter would like New Jersey to join Philadelphia and the 14 states that have decriminalized marijuana.
 
"It's a good first step, it's a half measure," he says. "…Any reform, no matter how teensy, is going to create a more thoughtful and honest environment to have a long, overdue discussion that we've been neglecting for the last 40 something years."
 
But a big opponent stands in their way of making the Garden State even greener.
 
Goldstein concluded New Jersey is "about as far away from legalization as Governor (Chris) Christie is from getting out of the governor office."
 
Bills written in 2014 to decriminalize or legalize marijuana by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and State Senator Nick Scutari "haven't received any traction in Trenton" largely due to Christie's steadfast opposition, Goldstein says.
 
Though New Jersey is among 23 states to legalize medical marijuana, the governor supports the program only because it passed in 2009, a year before his administration, not by choice.
 
"We are following the law," the governor said on his monthly radio show on 101.5-FM in June 2014. "And we are following a medically based program. But I am not going to permit de-facto legalization of marijuana in this state or regular legalization of marijuana in this state by statute. (It's) not going to happen on my watch."
 
Christie says it would send the wrong message to children, but Goldstein argues marijuana is healthier than some legal alternatives.
 
"You can drink a large amount of alcohol and drink yourself to death while playing lawful casino slots on your smart phone," Goldstein says. "What's more dangerous here?"
 
While lobbying for legal marijuana for those at least 21 years old, the age he first inhaled, Lassiter says we can't ignore reality.
 
"Kids are smoking pot anyway," Lassiter says. "It's not like the floodgates are going to open and dime bags will be raining from the sky."
 
Goldstein adds: "Marijuana doesn't magically appear when a law is signed. It's around us every day. And that's why it's important for politicians to deal with reality which apparently Governor Christie isn't."
 
Christie isn't the only state politician for prohibition. Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini is a staunch critic of marijuana, writing an editorial against marijuana reform to the Asbury Park Press on March 12.
 
"Despite the recent successes of the legalization forces, there is little debate among the medical and scientific community that marijuana is a harmful, addictive drug," Angelini writes. "That is why legalization is opposed by nearly all of the country's major public health associations."
 
Christie's views aren't shared by most state residents or members of his political party he represents, Goldstein says.
 
Only 27 percent of those polled at Washington D.C.'s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 28 were in favor of keeping marijuana illegal. Another 40 percent supported full, untaxed legalization.
 
"I think Governor Christie is against the will of residents and on the wrong of history as it pertains to this issue," Goldstein says.
 
Christie himself garnered only 2.8 percent of the vote at CPAC, placing 10th among candidates at the conference.
 
"Marijuana was far more popular than the governor at CPAC," Goldstein riffs.
 
Program participation has suffered since the first dispensary in the state opened in 2012. Only two alternative treatment centers have opened since, the closest being in Egg Harbor Township. Three others have been preliminarily approved, but have not yet opened, including one in Bellmawr.
 
Of the 21,000 doctors in New Jersey, just 350 have registered to write marijuana prescriptions for one of 14 conditions covered by the program as of last spring.
 
Lassiter, who has been HIV positive for 22 years, is one of the 2,279 patients registered with the state program by Jan. 2014.
 
"And even if I didn't have HIV I like to smoke marijuana," he says. "There's no (shame) with a 42-year-old grown up who doesn't drink or gamble to do a bong hit on occasion."
 
Of New Jersey's estimated 40,000 hospice patients with fewer than six months to live, few are getting cannabis. A report issued by the state this spring found 212 terminally ill patients were enrolled in the program.
 
Dr. Stephen Goldfine, chief medical officer of Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice in Marlton, estimates having had 30 hospice patients request marijuana to ease their pain.
 
But Goldfine says patients encounter two common pains along the way: traveling to the nearest ATV in Egg Harbor Township proves and then consuming marijuana as "some of them have never smoked before."
 
"Hospice patients don't get around as well as other patients so it's hard for them to drive that hour," says Goldfine, adding that it's illegal to ship medicinal marijuana. "A lot of people don't have that access, a lot of them are home bound."
 
An edible form of medical marijuana was announced Friday.
 
But even those who qualify may prefer a deal on the street. According to crowdsourcing site priceofweed.com, an ounce of high grade marijuana on the blackmarket in New Jersey costs about $344 an ounce, less than the $400 to $520 dispensaries are charging.
 
A main impetus for the legalization of weed is the realization that marijuana prosecutions affect African Americans disproportionately.
 
Though a racial disparity of pot-related arrests exists across the country, Goldstein finds New Jersey less transparent with its crime data than states like Pennsylvania, which has a public database that lists the age, gender and race of offenders.
 
"When we look at marijuana arrests in New Jersey there's not a real database we can look at," Goldstein notes.
 
Through filing OPRA requests to each county, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey concluded that African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at 2.84 times the rate of whites in 2010, despite comparable marijuana usage rates.
 
The 21,659 arrests for marijuana possession accounted for 43.4 percent of all drug arrests in 2010, a concentration which the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association found to be a misuse of time through its endorsement of Scutari's bill to legalize up to an ounce of weed.
 
"As a municipal prosecutor, I have had to waste countless taxpayer dollars and hours of police officers' time to prosecute New Jerseyeans," Jon-Henry Barr, the President of the N.J. Municipal Prosecutors Association, told NJ.com at a February press conference. "The savings that will be realized will dwarf any drawbacks."
 
As the first government in the world to regulate marijuana production and sale, Colorado is under a microscope by advocates and critics alike.
 
Charging 10 percent special sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana transfers on $313.2 million sales of recreational marijuana, Colorado hauled in $44 million from new taxes on recreational pot in 2014, down from its initial forecast of $70 million.
 
"The people who live in Colorado, the sky didn't fall, I know that much," he says. "The revenue streams are very appealing."
 
But the state's biggest windfall may be the hidden savings of prosecutors and police.
 
If pot was legal, state taxpayers would save the $127 million that it costs to arrest, process, prosecute and incarcerate the 21,000 offenders, estimates the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition of American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey, the NAACP State Conference of New Jersey and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
 
Anna Russo, 70 of Blackwood, is unhappy with her experience of trying medical marijuana to ease her chronic severe pain caused by several medical conditions.
 
While pot advocates are used to holding their breath for reform, Goldstein is in rarefied air, having passed on pot for a year, even a smoking invitation from Willie Nelson during an interview.
 
After serving one year of his probation on March 25, Goldstein says he will appeal for early termination.
 
Even if accepted, he will have to wait five years before he can apply for a presidential pardon to expunge his criminal record. He hopes the next winning presidential slogan sounds something like "Yes We Cannabis."
 
"That's the only way I can get my record clear," he says.
 
~

Recent News Articles

Monday July 22

How can Texas fix its marijuana problem after legalizing hemp? Forensic experts have a plan…

in Law & Crime

by Bruce Kennedy - Editor in Chief

Prosecutors and crime lab scientists were scrambling to find a solution after a change in…

272 hits

Monday July 22

Medical pot is helping Minnesotans with PTSD - Cannabis News

in Medical News

by Bruce Kennedy - Editor in Chief

Minnesotans who use medical pot to treat post-traumatic stress disorder are reporting less anxiety and…

351 hits

Monday July 22

Marijuana tourism lifts off in east Oregon - Cannabis News

in Finance

by Bruce Kennedy - Editor in Chief

“There is a piece of touring that does belong to marijuana."

229 hits

Monday July 22

Cannabis industry gets crafty with terpenes - Cannabis News

in Science

by Bruce Kennedy - Editor in Chief

Terpenes, terpenoids, terps. Whatever you call them, these compounds in cannabis that give it distinctive…

237 hits

Tuesday July 23

Top Congressional Chairman And Presidential Candidate File Marijuana Legalization Bills - Cannabis News

in Politics

by Bruce Kennedy - Editor in Chief

The chairman of a key congressional committee responsible for crime policy is teaming up with…

216 hits