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Is N.J. going to pot? Cops hope not

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By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent

Even if the state legislature legalizes the possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for people age 21 and older, it appears that several area communities would still look to ban the practice.

And that’s an option that municipalities could exercise, through the passage of a local ordinance, under the proposed law.

The bill, S1896, as introduced March 27 by State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), with a companion bill in the Assembly, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further debate.

The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office declined comment on the bill and referred The Observer to the state Attorney General’s Office, whose spokesman said the office would have no comment.

But The Observer successfully solicited reactions from five municipal law enforcement leaders in Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties, all of whom were unanimous in opposing the bill for various reasons.

A version of the bill published Saturday by the N.J. Division of Legislative Services explained that under the bill’s provisions, it would “not be unlawful” for people age 21 and older to:

• Buy, use or transport “marijuana accessories” or “one ounce or less” of marijuana and consume it in a private space.

• Grow or transport “no more than six marijuana plants, with three or fewer being mature, flowering plants … provided that the growing takes place in an enclosed, locked space, is not conducted openly or publicly, and is not made available for sale.”

• Buy marijuana or marijuana products from a retail marijuana store under rules to be developed by a newly constituted state Division of Alcoholic Beverage and Marijuana Control.

The bill would allow municipalities to “enact ordinances” to regulate “the time, place, manner and number of marijuana establishments,” to process applications, issue annual licenses within 90 days and penalize violators. The new state ABMC would review applications for licenses. Application fees “shall not exceed $5,000.”

Municipalities also “may prohibit the operation of” marijuana facilities by ordinance.

And the state would have the right to levy a sales tax “upon marijuana sold or otherwise transferred by a marijuana cultivation facility to a marijuana produce manufacturing facility or to a retail marijuana store …” with tax revenues to be distributed to the state Transportation Trust Fund, the Drug Enforcement Demand Reduction Fund and programs supporting women’s health, family planning, postpartum depression awareness, smoking cessation and HIVawareness.

If the bill becomes law, “It should be a high tax,” said Kearny Police Chief John Dowie, but it would be preferable if the bill is squashed, he added. “I have no problem with medical marijuana but I’m not in favor of this bill.” Dowie said. “I don’t think we should be encouraging people to be under the influence of any drug. And this bill would make marijuana easier to get.”

Moreover, Dowie said, “We’d probably have more instances of people driving under the influence.” And that, in turn, he said, means that police departments would have to arrange – and pay for – training of more cops as “drug recognition officers.”

With the bill’s passage, Dowie predicted, “We’re going to have a lot more fires [because] a lot more people are likely to fall asleep smoking marijuana in bed.”

And, he said, “What about access to children when mom and dad are smoking? Plus, we’ve seen examples of misadventures with high school students experimenting with marijuana. I’d hate to see anybody’s future ruined as a result.”

Dowie said he’d prefer to see an emphasis shifted to preventing smoking, period. “Cigarettes should be $20 a pack – they’re outright harmful, totally addictive.”

That concern about smoking patterns was also sounded by East Newark Police Chief Anthony Monteiro. “When you see a 14-year-old out in the street smoking a cigarette, I worry,” he said. And a single marijuana joint “is equivalent to 20 cigarettes” in terms of harm to the body, he said. According to the American Lung Association, “when equal amounts of marijuana and tobacco are smoked, marijuana deposits four times as much tar into the lungs.” For those reasons, Monteiro said, “I don’t want to see what this bill can do, potentially, to the minds of young juveniles.”

North Arlington Police Chief Louis Ghione, Harrison Police Chief Derek Kearns and Belleville Police Chief Joseph Rotonda each cited studies which, they say, bear out that marijuana only serves as a “gateway drug” to more serious narcotics.

Ghione said that the proposal for the general legalization of marijuana has been discussed by the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association and that “most of the South Bergen chiefs are opposed to it” because of concern that young adults smoking it will graduate to using prescription pills like Xanax or move on to heroin. The drug situation is “becoming epidemic” in the state, he said.

“From a police perspective,” said Harrison’s Kearns, “I don’t think legalizing marijuana is a good thing. It may have a purpose for treating people for medical reasons but in general, I think it’s something too dangerous to society. It could lead to introducing cocaine, heroin, and we don’t need that.”

Belleville’s Rotonda said: “I favor medical marijuana. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with [general legalization]. Most people who are addicted to drugs usually started with marijuana.” Between 30% to 40% of the department’s drug-related arrests involve marijuana use, the chief noted.

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