Officials Warn of Downside to Legalizing Pot

Mar 14, 2018

An increase in homelessness, human trafficking, unemployment – these are just some of the unintentional consequences of legalizing marijuana that few people are willing to talk about, according to elected officials and law enforcement. In New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has promised to legalize marijuana should a bill come across his desk, making the longstanding illegal activity legal is being touted not for financial gains, but for social justice.

“If money is secondary,” said Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), “if you want to help us, help urban communities, then decriminalize pot” rather than legalizing it.

Rice, along with Sens. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and Robert Singer (R-Ocean), introduced a bill last month that would do just that. Under the proposal, an individual with less than 10 grams of pot would be fined $100 for the first offense; $200 for the second offense, and $500 for additional violations. However, Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said recently he doesn’t expect the bill to go anywhere because he has no interest in advancing the bill. He, instead, is a proponent of legalizing marijuana.

Although it may seem otherwise, there is a difference between decriminalizing and legalizing pot. Decriminalizing weed means an individual in possession of a small amount of cannabis would face a fine instead of a criminal record and jail time. Legalizing marijuana would, effectively, allow consumers to purchase the drug in a manner similar to how alcohol is purchased – regulated by age, but legal without a penalty (unless purchased by someone who is underage). It also means growing, transporting and selling pot would be legal, increasing supply and demand of the mind-altering drug.

“Stop telling me you want to help us when all you’re doing is harming us,” Rice, also chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, said earlier this week of the proposents looking to fast-track legalizing pot in the state. “I know what will happen; it’s happening now – people are selling $100 worth of food stamps for $40, $50 to support their habits. People who have never thought about trying drugs will.”

Cartels are moving into states with legalized pot and recruiting local gang members, giving them more power to control neighborhoods because they have a cartel behind them, he added.

“People are already scared to leave their homes,” Rice said of individuals living in urban communities where high crime and drug use already exist. “This (legalizing pot) is going to make them a prisoner of their own homes.”

The financial promises, he said, aren’t guaranteed and come at a price for not just urban areas, but the state as a whole.

“It’s going to cost more to police cities,” said Rice, a former Newark cop, if proponents are successful in getting marijuana legalized. He noted car insurance costs, already high in New Jersey, would likely spike, resulting in individuals not being able to afford it. Unemployment rates would surge as the number of people who could no longer pass drug tests rises, he said. “Using pot makes it easier to get hooked on harder drugs. These are foreseeable things, things people are not talking about.”

Stafford Township Police Chief Tom Dellane isn’t one of those people.

“The biggest concern is black-market pot. Its (availability) has spiked because legalized pot is so heavily taxed,” he said, noting marijuana today isn’t the same cannabis making the rounds in the 1960s and ’70s, even 30 years ago. Marijuana includes more than 400 chemicals, including THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). As the main ingredient in pot, THC determines potency and effect of the drug. The amount of THC has steadily increased. “The only way to confirm if someone is under the influence of pot is a blood test.”

That makes driving while under the influence arrests more difficult in New Jersey, where applied consent doesn’t extend to blood tests, Dellane said. Cross-trained drug K-9 officers would become obsolete if pot is legalized because there is no way of knowing whether they smell pot or another substance. New K-9 officers and their handlers would need to be retrained at a cost of about $10,000 plus lost manpower hours, he said.

“There is an increased liability on law enforcement,” he said. “If someone doesn’t comply, we can seize plants; search warrants allow for immediate destruction.”

But a recent $1.2 million judgment against a Colorado police department for payback of lost product has the law enforcement community rethinking how it does business.

“On the federal level, marijuana is still illegal, so producers and growers can’t put their money in an FDIC bank,” Dellane said, which has resulted in drug cartels buying up properties for rental houses and laundering their money. Growing pot legally in Colorado, or some other state where it’s legal, has opened the growing fields in Mexico and other areas to grow other drugs, he added.

What all of this has done, he said, is result in a 30 percent increase in homicides in Colorado in the years since pot was legalized; building explosions have also increased, and human trafficking has become a problem, Dellane said.

“There is a large Cuban forced labor camp. The workers are threatened with their lives or the lives of their family,” he said.

— Gina G. Scala





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