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Prepping for the Post-Christie Era: New Jersey Leaders Play the Long Game on Legalization

June 17, 2016

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came out with another of his double-barrel blasts at legalization earlier this week.

“There is no bigger anti-drug person than me, Christie told listeners of NJ101.5 on Tuesday. “I will never decriminalize marijuana in this state, I will never legalize marijuana in this state, for every minute that I’m governor. It’s a gateway drug, it’s a bad thing, and we shouldn’t be doing it. And we shouldn’t be sending messages to our kids and young adults saying it’s OK. It’s not.”

Three years ago, those words would have mattered. Today, not so much.

In January 2013, Christie's approval ratings peaked in the mid-70s, and his grip on cannabis reform was crushing. In word and deed, Christie was skeptical of his own state's medical marijuana program and downright hostile toward anyone with the temerity to challenge the failed prohibition model.

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But thanks to the enduring BridgeGate scandal, his hostility to cannabis reform, and his comical embrace of Donald Trump, Christie's poll numbers now are in the toilet. Only 27% of New Jersey residents currently fancy his brand of leadership. And while Christie’s power drains away, two powerful Trenton Democrats are laying the groundwork for reform when NJ voters choose a new Governor in November 2017.

New Jersey Senator Nick Scutari is probably the most powerful pro-cannabis legislator in Trenton, and this week he started making waves. Scutari, who doesn’t use cannabis, returned from a trip to Colorado and briefed a curious statehouse press corps on his fact-finding mission.

“Marijuana legalization is working in Colorado," Scutari told Leafly. "What I saw was a tightly–regulated system that has benefited the state. They are seeing more than $1 billion dollars a year in direct sales of retail and medical marijuana, and the impact to the overall economy of legalization is far greater. Contrary to the predictions of critics, crime has not increased and communities remain vibrant. Based on my experience in Colorado, I am more confident now that legalization is the right thing to do in New Jersey. It will create jobs, generate revenue for important programs but, most of all, it will end the failed laws that have been a detriment to so many of our residents and to our state.”

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Scutari's office is now drafting a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis for adult consumption in New Jersey. He says we can expect hearings in the fall.

Why is Scutari doing this? The Union County lawmaker says his efforts are animated by his dozen years of experience as a county prosecutor. He saw the war on drugs firsthand, and he thinks it’s time to end the failed effort. As chairman of NJ's Senate Judicial Committee, Scutari has outsized influence on all matter of Garden State jurisprudence, including the confirmation process of Supreme- and Superior Court judges.

In an interview with Leafly, Ken Wolski, who runs Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey (CMMNJ) called Scutari "the leading legislative champion for marijuana reform in New Jersey.” Scutari was the first legislator to introduce a medical marijuana bill in the state, back in 2005, five years before the bill became law. “He has consistently fought for the rights of patients to have access to this safe and effective therapeutic substance,” added Wolski, and “continues to play a leading role in the issue by personally traveling to Colorado to see marijuana legalization for himself, first-hand."

Some local cannabis advocates favor a more aggressive strategy over Scutari’s more measured, methodical approach. But Wolski is comfortable with Sen. Scutari's timeline. "I only wish he brought the entire legislature with him to visit Denver, Boulder and Golden,” Wolski told Leafly, “so they could personally see the impact of marijuana legalization and compare it to cities that have yet to legalize marijuana, like Trenton, Camden and Atlantic City."

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Speaking of Atlantic City, another Trenton politician is already moving ahead on legalization in the seaside resort. Yesterday afternoon—at 4:20—Assemblyman Reed Gusciora introduced a bill to restore a bit of luster to the beleaguered casino town by turning it into an oasis for cannabis users. With 4 of its 12 casinos now sitting idle, Atlantic City has fallen hard from the high-rolling glory days of the 1980s. Imagine enjoying a legal joint while basking in the ocean breeze. Imagine a robust well-regulated cannabis industry undoing the damage wrought by a hollowed-out gambling industry. That's exactly what Assemblyman Gusciora is imagining.

"Two types of people visit Atlantic City," Gusciora told Leafly. "Seniors from the Woodstock generation and 20-year-olds. You can't get a better [cannabis] demographic than that!"

Time is of the essence, Gusciora said. "Nevada has a legal cannabis bill on the ballot in November. That's another competitive disadvantage [if we languish] here in Atlantic City."

New Jersey Assemblyman Reed Gusciora
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora

Does either measure have a chance? Not likely in the near term. New Jersey is probably stuck with Chris Christie for another 18 months, and he’d likely kill any reform measure that came across his desk. In the meantime, reform-minded legislators like Nick Scutari and Reed Gusciora continue to drive the cannabis debate to a more sensible place. And since Scutari's initiative is on a legislative track and Gusciora's Atlantic City plan is a ballot measure, these complementary efforts wouldn’t compete against each other.

“We’re going to move the ball down the field,” Scutari told Leafly. “This is a process. We have a lot of legislators that need education [on cannabis reform.] I encourage people to go out and take a look and see for themselves. I could not be more pleasantly surprised at what I saw” in Colorado.

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