Just before noon on Tuesday, January 16, 2018, Philip Dunton Murphy stood on stage in the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, NJ and placed his hand on the Bible. Having spent the last two years on the the campaign trail, the day had finally come for Murphy to be sworn in as Governor of the Garden State.
The proceedings had a ring of sentimentality to them, as the Bible Murphy choose to be sworn in on was the same Bible used in 1960 for the swearing in of his political idol John F. Kennedy. Murphy credits his own belief in social justice and economic fairness to the examples set by his brother, Robert, and President Kennedy himself.
Murphy spent much of 2016 and 2017 crafting his platform with these ideals in mind. His speeches brimmed with promises of a “stronger and fairer New Jersey,” one with high-wage jobs, affordable community colleges, increased funding for public schools, as well as assistance for small businesses and affordable housing that is safe from the dangers of lead. This focus on fairness is also what informs Murphy’s opinions on marijuana.
“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana. And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s strong words in favor of legalized marijuana marked a shocking divergence from his predecessor, Chris Christie, who supported the use of marijuana strictly for medical purposes.
Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey since January 18, 2010—since Jon Corzine’s final day as governor. On this day, Corzine, emboldened by a ‘nothing left to lose’ attitude, signed a flurry of bills into law, including S. 119, the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, which permitted the use of medical cannabis for several severe illnesses.
Although medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey for nearly eight years, the state of roughly 9 million people has only six marijuana dispensaries to its name. For perspective, Nevada, a state with less than 3 million people, has over 60 marijuana dispensaries to support its population.
For eight years, New Jersey has been unable to expand the availability of medical marijuana or make a shift towards full legalization due to a top-down lack of support under the Christie administration, as well as real opposition amongst New Jersey residents.
Now, with Governor Murphy’s overwhelming support, marijuana advocates have been emboldened to get the ball moving on legalization—but opposition still exists. According to a new poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University, only 42 percent of people believe New Jersey should legalize weed.
Twenty seven percent of those surveyed said they support the sale of marijuana strictly for medical purposes, and 26 percent said they would support decriminalization of the drug, so that it is treated like a civil traffic infraction rather than a criminal charge.
The promise of legalized marijuana is one of economic growth. The most widely accepted estimate is that New Jersey’s recreational marijuana industry would be worth $1 billion annually.
However, a recent meeting on the topic of marijuana at the Statehouse in Trenton heard several advocates proclaim that $1 billion is actually a lowball estimate.
Analysts have predicted that due to New Jersey’s wealth and the fact that we are home to 14 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies, we are in a good position to not only sell recreational marijuana, but also become the nation’s industry leader. If the state chooses to tax marijuana sales, those funds will likely go towards helping Murphy carry out his lofty campaign promises.
If marijuana is legalized, we also stand to gain an entire industry worth of new jobs that would go a long way in diminishing our roughly 10 percent youth unemployment rate (ages 20-24). Jobs as budtenders, growers, sellers, processors, cooks, packagers and delivery people exist just on the other side of legalization.
Many of those opposed to recreational marijuana have voiced concerns about the potential effect legalization will have on the culture of the Garden State.
New Jersey already suffers from a drug addiction crisis as is—the rate of overdoses from heroin in New Jersey is three times the national rate, and drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths each year.
Marijuana’s continued status as a Schedule 1 drug—meaning it is considered to have no currently accepted medical value and has a high risk for abuse—reinforces the opinions of many New Jersey residents that its legalization would be a decidedly negative influence on efforts to fix the drug crisis.
In addition, many are worried that the inability to perform precise, onsite tests for marijuana-impairment during traffic stops will pose a major risk to our safety on the road. As of now, police rely on roadside behavioral testing in order to determine if a driver is too high to drive—this process is ineffective to say the very least.
Murphy’s promise to legalize weed within 100 days of his inauguration will surely be broken, as New Jersey remains torn on the issue of marijuana.
Whether New Jersey expands marijuana use medically, decriminalizes it or legalizes it for recreational use, will be determined through a combination of legislative power and public will. The process will take time, but ultimately, the people of the Garden State will decide what is right for their community.