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When news outlets discuss which East Coast state will be the first to legalize recreational marijuana, most reports suggest Maine or Massachusetts as the likely East Coast cannabis pioneers. One often overlooked — but not altogether unlikely — option is New Jersey, the small Mid-Atlantic state whose governor has been vocally opposed to legalization efforts since he took office.

In November, the discussion of a bill that would legalize, tax, and regulate recreational marijuana use in New Jersey gained mainstream traction. In a hearing before the state senate’s judiciary committee, Committee chairman Nicholas Scutari, the bill’s sponsor, opened the floor to legalization proponents.

“It is time to update our archaic drug laws to finally address the detrimental effect they’re having on our residents’ lives,” he said during the hearing. Scutari, a local prosecutor, went on to suggest that recreational marijuana could bring $1 billion or more to the state through tax revenue.

Speakers at the hearing included J.H. Barr, president of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutor’s Association, Richard Smith, president of the New Jersey NAACP, Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU in New Jersey, and Dr. David Nathan, a psychiatrist from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

State senate president Stephen Sweeney said he is open to examining such a bill, but did not explicitly state whether he is in favor of passing it, stressing the importance of examining relevant data before making this type of crucial decision.

But a hearing of all the potential benefits that legalization could bring does not mean it’s on its way for the Garden State – at least not yet. No immediate action was taken on the bill. Critics were quick to point out that Scutari failed to invite opponents to the discussion. Opponents are scheduled to state their concerns to the state senate at a later date.

Right now, the biggest obstacle for marijuana legalization in New Jersey is Governor Chris Christie, who has been vocally opposed to it throughout his years in office. Despite signing New Jersey’s medical marijuana program into law in 2010 and recently signed a bill that allows students who use medical marijuana to take their medicine in school, he continues to hold the position that marijuana is a gateway drug and legalizing it would be harmful to the state’s children. In a recent visit to Colorado while campaigning for the 2016 Republican presidential ticket, he stated that if elected, he will enforce federal prohibition laws even in states where recreational cannabis use is legal.

But Scutari is not giving up on his goal of bringing cannabis legalization to New Jersey within the next few years. “I think we need to change the entire ballgame and legalize it, regulate and tax it, so we can ensure the safety of our citizens as well as garner the tax benefit,” he said shortly after the hearing.

Photo Credit: docmonstereyes

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