A bipartisan delegation of New Jersey lawmakers back from Colorado after checking out that state’s marijuana industry say they saw nothing to deter them from legalizing it in the Garden State in 2018.

Not all of them had yet committed to voting for the plan, which will be studied and massaged for the next 15 months but isn’t likely to proceed before then because Gov. Chris Christie is against it.

But come 2018, and the inaugural of the next governor, the push will be on, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who said he’s “absolutely sold” that legalizing and regulating marijuana will be “a game-changer for this state.”

“As soon as the governor gets situated, we’re all still here, we intend to move quickly on it,” Sweeney said.

“I really wish every legislator would have a chance to witness what we witnessed because there wouldn’t be one no vote if they saw it,” he said.

This week’s trip by nine lawmakers was organized by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, who said the marijuana industry in Colorado has generated almost 29,000 direct jobs and led to an 81 percent cut in drug arrests over the past year.

“This is probably the single most important change that we can make in New Jersey and in America going forward,” Scutari said. “This type of industry, based upon what we’ve seen and research, has the overall ability to reduce crime, to increase the chances of people being in college and getting jobs later on and producing a boon for the economy in terms of all the jobs that it creates, direct and ancillary, not to mention the individual tax benefits.”

Colorado voters legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012, and the industry began in 2014. Scutari visited the state in June to learn about the industry, but for most of his Senate and Assembly colleagues the experience was new.

“This was an outstanding trip, a real eye-opener. I was so impressed with the regulation. When you went into these facilities, it was like you were going to the mall in Bridgewater, into one of the jewelry stores,” said Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset. “Everything was clean, secure, under glass. It was very impressive.”

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, said she was reassured to see that the products aren’t packaged or marketed in ways that make them attractive to children.

“These products look completely different than a regular brownie, than a regular cookie, than a regular Gummi Bear,” Lampitt said. “So there’s great concern that they have taken and great degrees that they have gone to be able to ensure the fact that these products do not look like something that would be readily consumed by a child.”

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, wasn’t ready to endorse the legislation, but he noted that the resulting tax revenues could approach $300 million and could help the state with its chronic budget deficit.

“There has been very little downside,” O’Scanlon said. “We heard horror stories, as you all have heard, from some of the people who are against marijuana legalization. Put out a lot of horror stories about accidents, children use – and none of that is manifesting itself on the ground there.”

“So far, the evidence and data that we have favors legalization, by a pretty wide margin,” he said.

The lawmakers said they would look for ways to use the same regulatory structure to oversee New Jersey’s existing medical marijuana program and prospective recreational marijuana industry, rather than duplicate efforts.

Some of them said the legalization effort could be a way to improve the medical marijuana program, which they view as overly restrictive.

Assemblyman Jim Kennedy, D-Union, views marijuana for sale at the GroundSwell Cannabis Boutique, a dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Lawmakers toured the facility on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats)
Assemblyman Jim Kennedy, D-Union, views marijuana for sale at the GroundSwell Cannabis Boutique, a dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Lawmakers toured the facility on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats)

“We virtually have no medical marijuana here in New Jersey,” Scutari said. “In fact, it doesn’t even register on the scale out there in terms of the experts that are reviewing state information because we have such a small program out here and it’s really just in name only, essentially.”

“This is kind of bizarre in a state where you can get Oxycontin relatively easy, yet a treatment like this is denied,” said Assemblyman Jim Kennedy, D-Union. “New Jersey at $500 an ounce is really encouraging the black market more than anything else.”

“We talk about 9,000 individuals currently using medical marijuana. That’s out of almost 9 million people,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden. “I would say that is almost nonexistent.”

Greenwald said the goal of legalizing marijuana in 2018 “is a realistic timeframe” but that work will be needed to educate the public on the issue.

“The best chance of getting this done in 2018 is the diligent, methodical, thoughtful approach that will identify what are the hardships, what are the risks, what are the benefits and change what have become societal norms or philosophies that have really dominated generations,” Greenwald said.

More From WPG Talk Radio 95.5 FM