Famously anti-marijuana former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) isn’t jumping on the pro-legalization train any time soon—but new comments suggest he might be softening his opposition a smidge, recognizing marijuana reform as a states’ rights issue.
Speaking at Politicon on Saturday, Christie took a question about his cannabis stance from YouTuber Kyle Kulinski, who asked him to weigh in on studies showing that states with legal marijuana programs experience lower rates of opioid addiction and overdoses compared to non-legal states. He was quick to dismiss the research, contending that other studies show the “exact opposite.”
“I just don’t believe when we’re in the midst of a drug addiction crisis that we need to legalize another drug,” Christie said, echoing comments he’s made as chair of President Donald Trump’s opioids committee.
Kulinski seized on that point and asked the former governor if he’d vote to ban alcohol.
“No, I wouldn’t ban it. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s a big, important argument about marijuana because once you legalize this, that toothpaste never goes back in the tube.”
“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” Christie said in 2015. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”
So it came as something of a surprise when the former governor went on to say in the Politicon appearance that “states have the right to do what they want to do on this,” signaling a modest shift in his anti-marijuana rhetoric. States should have that right even though, as Christie put it, “broad legalization of marijuana won’t, in my view, alleviate or even minimize the opioid crisis.”
It’s unclear what’s behind the apparent shift from hardline prohibitionist to wary federalist, but who knows… maybe Christie experienced an epiphany at a Melissa Etheridge concert he attended earlier this month.
Etheridge, who recently spoke with Marijuana Moment about her cannabis advocacy and use of the drug for medicinal purposes, reacted to a tweet showing Christie at one of her recent performances, where he reportedly knew every word of her songs and sang along.
The Garden State is overwhelmingly in support of legalizing marijuana.
New Jersey voters are on board with ending cannabis prohibition by a margin of 62 percent to 33 percent, a new poll shows. That includes strong majorities of Democrats, independents, men, women, whites, nonwhites and every age group except those older than 65.
A whopping 90 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 support cannabis legalization.
A separate question in the new Quinnipiac University survey, released on Wednesday, finds that voters support “erasing criminal records for marijuana possession,” 63 percent to 27 percent.
And when it comes to allowing legal marijuana sales in one’s own community, voters are comfortable with that to the tune of 50 percent to 45 percent.
A top lawmaker in New Jersey said he’s confident he’ll get the votes to fully legalize marijuana and expand the state’s medical cannabis program by the end of next month.
In an interview with Politico, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) recognized that there are some politicians who “will never support” legalization. But with the help of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) and Gov. Phil Murphy (D), he expects a pair of far-reaching cannabis reform bills to pass through the legislature in September.
Our out-dated approach to marijuana has to change. We are putting people in jail for what most of us now realize shouldn’t even be a crime.
There’s a hitch, though. The bills haven’t been fully drafted yet, so an official roll call is still down the line.
Sweeney said he disagreed with Murphy’s proposed 25 percent tax on recreational sales, arguing that it’s too steep to stamp out the illicit market. And a proposed provision to expunge records of people perviously convicted of marijuana offenses hasn’t been finalized.
Even so, Sweeney predicted that, when the bills finally come out, more legislative supporters would come out of the shadows. “Don’t be surprised when people who say they were against it vote for it,” he said.
“Listen, we’re going to need to work with [Republicans] to pass it. I can’t get anyone to make a commitment on something that they have no idea what it looks like, nor would I expect them to make the commitment.”
Legalization in New Jersey has been a long time coming.
It’s been about seven years since the state implemented a limited medical marijuana system, which has rapidly expanded under Murphy—with the number of registered patients growing from 10,000 to 25,000 since January.
The ACLU released in-depth analysis of the issue of overly aggressive arrest practices when it comes to marijuana use. Not only are arrests significantly on the rise, they are becoming more racially charged and disparate than ever. What’s going on in the Garden State, and what can and should be done to halt the increasingly aggressive stance taken by law enforcement? The ACLU findings provide some clues:
Racial inequities at an all-time high: The way an individual is treated by officers and the court varies in New Jersey based on race. According to the ACLU, an African American was three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white user, even though both races use marijuana at similar rates. In some areas, like Point Pleasant Beach, a Black individual is a whopping 31% more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person. 88% of arrests are of users, not dealers; just regular New Jersey citizens found in the possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Wasted resources: The state spends more than $143 million per year pursuing marijuana users; the state spent over a billion dollars in the last decade to arrest, prosecute and jail offenders. This money could be better spent on everything from education to drug treatment or community outreach, but instead goes towards prosecuting and jailing those found in possession of marijuana.
Penalties for Marijuana Possession in New Jersey
The aggressive arrest and prosecution of those possessing even small amounts of marijuana is an issue as well. Jail, a criminal record and a suspended driver’s license are just the beginning; every aspect of life is impacted by those who are convicted of possession. It can be more difficult to obtain a job and a conviction could prevent an individual from securing a place to live, going to college or even volunteering at a child’s school. The ACLU report highlights the devastating impact these aggressive laws and penalties has on the lives of New Jersey’s citizens.
A Better Solution for New Jersey
Citing the harsh penalties and racial inequalities when it comes to both arrests and consequences, the ACLU, along with local civil rights leaders and physicians support the growing public call to legalize marijuana in the Garden State. Legalization will drastically reduce the number of arrests and allow law enforcement to focus time, energy and resources on more meaningful causes. Recent polling says that almost 60% of New Jersey residents support the legalization of marijuana and feel that the ability to tax and regulate the drug would bring a much-needed change to the state.
The ACLU calls for New Jersey to halt their racially biased approach to marijuana arrest and prosecution. In addition, they call for the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana in the state. The ACLU also calls for police departments to properly track Latinx arrest data; there is currently no arrest data to track the disparity of arrests in the Hispanic community. Finally, the New Jersey Attorney General is asked to investigate the extreme racial disparity in the arrests of the past decade and to use this data to improve the criminal justice system in the state.
The people being fired for using medical cannabis are the ones who need it the most.
After the Ocean City Fire Department in New Jersey initiated a cannabis drug testing policy, Brad Wiltshire was left choosing between his job and his health. Medical cannabis is legal in New Jersey, and it was recommended to him by his neurologist. Wiltshire was diagnosed with dystonia, a movement disorder that causes uncontrollable muscle spasms that result in intense pain.
Wiltshire has been a firefighter for 20 years, and was involved in 9/11 recovery, which by itself has caused a host of illnesses, associated with the debris and environment that emergency workers had to endure. By all accounts, he was an exemplary member of the team. He explained to his chief that he uses medical cannabis to treat his condition, knowing from experience that it does not affect his ability to do his job. But he was suspended. The best the chief could provide was paid sick leave with his accompanying medical benefits in tact. He’s now waiting for the city to determine his future as a firefighter.
“The emotional impact on me and my family — you’re almost going to make me tear up here — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. I have a disease, and it’s so fucking hard,” said Wiltshire. “It’s wrecked my family. We’re so close, but we’re so depressed. It’s such an unhappy house.”
Wiltshire is fighting the decision through a lawsuit against the city, which asks for his job back as well as the freedom to use medical cannabis when off-duty. The lawsuit specifies that denying him the use of medical cannabis is “in direct violation of the letter, spirit, and intent of the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act,” and he is requesting compensation as a result of the policy.
The majority of cannabis legislation, both recreational and medical, leaves the door open for employers to continue to drug test and terminate employment based on a positive result. While many white collar working environments choose not to have such policies, jobs that require heavy lifting, the operation of heavy machinery, emergency personnel, airline workers, and truck drivers are subject to drug testing, regardless of medical marijuana laws. While these policies are meant to ensure the safety of these employees and the people and property around them, they are more likely to suffer from ailments and injuries due to the physical aspect of their work. After a 1991 train crash that killed 16 people and injured 174 people, Congress made drug testing mandatory for “safety-sensitive” workers, after it was determined by the National Transportation and Safety Board that an engineer was using marijuana to the point of impairment.
Many of these employees are left to suffer or use prescription opioids, which are causing a public health crisis. According to the CDC, as many as one in four people who are prescribed opioid painkillers for chronic pain conditions develop addiction behaviors. Drug overdoses alone decreased the life expectancy of Americans for the first time in over 20 years.
If the concern is that medical marijuana will impair a person’s physical and mental abilities, then the alternative is just as dangerous.
Wiltshire was prescribed muscle relaxers that came with plenty of cautionary literature that advised against driving and operating heavy machinery. As with many tranquilizers, they lose effectiveness over time and are not a long-term solution. Wiltshire eventually switched to medical cannabis when his prescription drugs failed, and it proved to be a more effective treatment.
His case is not unique. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Walmart in 2010 on behalf of an employee who was injured on the job. Joseph Casias was suffering from a brain tumor and cancer while working at Walmart, but his injury required that he undergo a drug test. “No one should have to choose between pain relief and gainful employment,” the ACLU wrote. “No employer should ever have to tolerate on-duty drug use or intoxication, but employees who legally use medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of painful and debilitating diseases should not be fired for doing so.” The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and similar cases tend to favor the employer.
While employers may want to accommodate medical cannabis during non-business hours, the issue of determining impairment has still evaded scientists. Devices similar to an alcohol breathalyzer are being developed to determine cannabis impairment, but they are still in the testing phase and not ready to be used in court. Instead, employers and law enforcement rely on blood tests. But cannabis can remain in the blood up to a month after the last date of consumption, which in no way determines impairment. In addition, medical marijuana users are more likely to develop a tolerance from ongoing cannabis use to treat chronic conditions.
But Ocean City officials may not be aware of cannabis tolerances, or what constitutes impairment for a regular medical cannabis patient. In response to Wiltshire’s suit, the city responded in a brief defending the fire department’s policy on medical cannabis. “Any argument that the lack of an incident during this period speaks to the Plaintiff’s ability to function while medicated is fallacious, like the argument that a drunk driver who has not been in a crash can safely drive,” the brief said.