By Gianluca D’Elia
Gov. Phil Murphy’s promise to legalize marijuana has been met with both praise and controversy since his inauguration last month. A panel of five advocates and local officials discussed the possible dangers of legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey on Feb. 22 in the Cavalla Room.
Stephen Reid, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, was one of the first mayors in the state to take opposition. The town made an ordinance in December to ban the sale of marijuana.
“We were the first town to do this,” Reid said. “We’re not going to tell you what to do, but as a town, we just didn’t see a nice fit for us. We have a great downtown, boardwalk and beach. Who wants people out there smoking marijuana?”
Reid soon realized his town’s action started a chain reaction as he began getting calls from news reporters about his decision.
“Other towns called me and wanted to see our ordinance so they could do the same thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Grace Hanlon, the state’s former director of travel and tourism, said she fears the marijuana industry will target youth and minorities, just as Big Tobacco has been accused of doing.
“Murphy wanted to legalize in 90 days,” Hanlon explained. “[Former President Barack] Obama didn’t do it because his senior advisors were strongly against it. Once you let this genie out of the bottle, you can’t let it back in.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2016, based on a survey of 22,000 teenagers, that nearly 70 percent of high school and middle school students saw advertisements for e-cigarettes in stores, 40 percent online and 30 percent on TV.
Diane Litterer, CEO of the New Jersey Prevention Network, added, “We’re finding that there are much more higher level density of stores in lower-income communities. This industry targets minority and low-income communities like the alcohol and tobacco industry does, and it affects the likelihood of kids to smoke.”
Another possible consequence of marijuana legalization is its effect on road safety, said former Lawrence Township Mayor Cathleen Lewis.
Citing a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Lewis said that from 2007 to 2014, the number of nighttime, weekend drivers with marijuana in their system increased.
“There have been a lot of folks on the fence, but at some point, we have to talk about what happens if we legalize,” Lewis said. “If we get that revenue, we have to dedicate it to awareness and education campaigns.”
Robert Czepiel, ’92, a prosecutor who works for the state’s division of criminal justice, had a similar fear, and suggested that New Jersey uses Washington and Colorado as guidelines to evaluate the effects of legalizing recreational marijuana.
“My biggest concern is DWI cases,” Czepiel said. “If we look at what happened in other states, we can use that as guides.”
Czepiel said that in the state of Washington, there was an increase from 5,000 to 9,500 DWIs involving THC, the key ingredient of pot, from 2007 to 2017.
Hanlon said she fears the marijuana industry will start “normalizing it, commercializing it and putting it in our faces,” similar to tobacco and alcohol.
“My mom smoked [cigarettes] her whole life,” Hanlon said. “I remember asking her why. She told me, ‘I can’t quit and we didn’t know it was bad back when I started.’”
Student Government Association President John Modica, who moderated the panel, said it is valuable to have a conversation about addressing issues that could rise from marijuana legalization.
“I appreciated that the focus was on commercialization and industry,” he said. “All things aside, whatever your opinions are, whenever you can make a market out of a stimulant, there’s always an opportunity for people to be exploited.”