Pot, weed, ganja, chronic, whatever you want to call it, never before has marijuana been so prevalent in the media, or made such advances towards legalization than it has in the last few years. The argument has long been made, that getting high is no worse for you than smoking cigarettes and drinking alcoholic beverages. Some doctors have even suggested that systemically, marijuana is actually less harmful to your health than alcohol. If that were true, why is marijuana illegal? The theories are numerous. Some suggest that total legalization would make it too difficult for the government to regulate, as people could grow and sell marijuana without paying taxes. Others believe that marijuana is not as harmless as advocates suggest, and that it not only has deleterious physical and psychological health issues, but also that legalization would increase the number of people driving their cars while high. So what is the truth? While you can find numerous “expert reports” and articles on both sides of the debate, which argue very persuasively, the reality is that there is no decisive evidence on either side. Reading everything there is to read on the subject, I am of the opinion that marijuana is neither as dangerous as some in law enforcement would seem to suggest, nor is it as harmless as proponents of legalization would argue. As such, whether to toke, or not toke remains a very personal decision for many people.
As an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I have represented countless clients charged with marijuana offenses. The vast majority of clients were charged under 2C:35-10, Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana, under 50grams. This is categorized as a disorderly persons offense, and has a statuary maximum penalty of 6 months in jail, a $1,000 fine, and a 6 month suspension of driving privileges. Possessing more than 50 grams of marijuana will be charged as a fourth degree crime. The statutory maximum penalties increase significantly, and include 18 months in state prison, and a $25,000. fine. Whether Possessing marijuana should remain a crime, has been hotly debated in the Garden State. In 2009, just before he left office, former Governor Jon Corzine (D) signed New Jersey’s medical marijuana legislation into law, with the first dispensary opening in 2012. Current Governor Chris Christie (R) however, calls medical marijuana laws a front for legalization, basing his opinion on the fact that, as The Star Ledger reported, only 2,342 patients have signed up state-wide. The program is indeed struggling. In fact, the president and chief executive of Compassionate Care Foundation, Inc. in Little Egg Harbor, one of three New Jersey medical marijuana dispensaries, quit amidst an inability to draw a salary in an industry that was doing poorly. Christie explains the reason for such a low turn out for a program that was touted to help tens of thousands, is because there isn’t a demand for medical pot. “What there’s a huge demand for is marijuana. Not medical marijuana. Because when we see a medically based program, you don’t see the demand.”, says Christie. Proponents, some law makers and dispensary operators, counter that the low enrollment is due to the programs strict rules, high cost, and small number of doctors willing to write prescriptions. Both sides of that debate have their points- I would add only that, I have personally represented clients who were charged with possession offenses prior to the enactment of New Jersey’s medical marijuana law (N.J.S.A. 24:61-3); people suffering greatly with significant neuromuscular health issues who stated unequivocally, that marijuana had vastly improved the quality of their lives. Something traditional medicine had failed to do.
I might be able to get away with saying that most people agree medical marijuana should be legally available to people who need it But should marijuana be legalized for recreational use, as suggested by Union County Democratic Senator Nicholas Scutari? “I think from a standpoint in moving this state and this country forward on it’s archaic drug laws, I think its a step in the right direction.”, says Scutari, citing that changing the law would dry up the illegal drug market, and would clean up the streets. In fact, he introduced legislation designed to do just that, and modeled New Jersey’s law after Colorado’s, which he points out netted some $2 million in sales taxes in the first month that the law was enacted. Senate President, Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he was open to the idea. It has been my experience that the legalization of marijuana is not only much more complicated than either side of the debate is willing to admit, but also that it does not happen in a vacuum. It is my strong opinion that marijuana is not as immediately dangerous to a person’s body or society in general as alcohol is. That is to say I can’t recall ever having represented a client who has committed acts of violence while under the influence of marijuana. I certainly can’t say the same thing about clients under the influence of alcohol. I also haven’t seen, or haven’t ben able to recognize chronic physical health problems in clients who regularly use marijuana the way I do with chronic drinkers, who tend to suffer serious health problems. I am not saying there aren’t any dangers to adding another intoxicating substance for people to legally use. I think for certain, more people will use marijuana, and I don’t know that increasing the number of intoxicated people in society is a good thing. It has been suggested that there are certain psychological issues that develop with regular marijuana use, such as amotivational syndrome, depression, exacerbation of schizophrenia, impairment in learning and cognitive function, especially in young people, and dependence. Voters are split on the issue, but both personally and professionally, I don’t think there is enough information yet to be able to accurately predict the long term impact marijuana legalization will have on New Jersey, and with an issue of this importance we ought to at least be able to theorize, based on fact, what that impact will be prior to making this decision for our state.