An historic hearing recently took place at the New Jersey Statehouse – lawmakers took testimony on the potential benefits of legalizing marijuana. Those in favor of the idea insist there are several reasons why this would make sense.

Generating revenue, less burden on the courts and jails

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According to State Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden) legalizing pot would not only generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenue, it would also save a tremendous amount of money.

“We’d have less clogged courtrooms, less work for prosecutors, less work for police, less work for judges, probation officers and parole officers,” he says.

Scutari also said police would spend less time chasing low-level drug offenders, and more time going after dangerous criminals. The senator also believes there could be less inmates in local and county jails.

“Our jail populations, especially at the local and county jails would be much lower, thereby being a significant cost savings for local governments,” Scutari said.

John Henry Barr, the municipal prosecutor for the township of Clark and president of the NJ State Municipal Prosecutors Association, said every time someone is arrested for possession of marijuana, it’s sealed in an evidence packet and shipped to a crime lab for analysis.

“There are so many of these samples piling up in the crime labs,” he said. “The analysis cannot be done in a reasonably amount of time, it is creating backlogs and delays. What used to take just a few weeks now takes months, sometimes four or five months or longer.”

In the meantime he says, “defendants and their attorneys area screaming they’re not getting the right to a speedy trial, that discovery is being withheld.”

Barr adds legalizing marijuana would probably lower the state’s prison population by several thousand inmates, although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact number.

He also said that while a first-time offender will wind up paying $700 to $800 dollars in fines and fees, it costs much more than that in court, police and crime lab time and salaries, so by legalizing pot, the cost savings for local governments and the state would be dramatic.

Job creation in the Garden State

At the same time, Scutari said, legalizing marijuana would create “real sustainable jobs."

"Not just the contracting jobs, the electrical contracting in the building jobs, but farming jobs, production line jobs, sales jobs, accounting jobs, we’re talking about all sorts of jobs that go into the creation of an entire new industry,” he said. “All of those people would now be gainfully employed and would be paying income tax on the earnings, not to mention the specific excise and sales taxes that would be garnered for the sale of the product. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of direct revenue for the state, and other untold amounts of money for an economic engine.”

Is marijuana really a gateway drug?

But what about the argument that marijuana is a dangerous gateway drug? Scutari believes it’s an old message that doesn’t really make sense.

“I’m not suggesting people start smoking marijuana,” he said. “I don’t do it and I don’t think people should, but on the other hand I do recognize that this country was built on personal freedom and liberty, and people are doing it anyway, so what we should do is ensure the safety of our citizens by making sure they have a pure product, certainly one that would never kill them, you can’t overdose on marijuana in any form, no matter how much you ingest.”

Scutari said the goal is to ultimately get marijuana off the black market.

“We’d like to regulate it and tax it, license it, take it out of the shadows and get rid of the black market, and that’s what’s driving criminal activity, the black market," he said.