Why Vote To Legalize Cannabis? We Spoke With NJ CAN 2020 To Find Out

Why Vote To Legalize Cannabis? We Spoke With NJ CAN 2020 To Find Out

What will cannabis legalization do for New Jersey? CannaContent co-founder Adam Uzialko sat down with Axel Owen, campaign manager for NJ CAN 2020, to find out.

During the interview, which aired on Instagram Live Oct. 14th, Adam and Axel discussed why previous efforts to legalize cannabis in New Jersey haven’t worked, what legalization can bring to the Garden State, and how you – yes, you! – can remind your friends, family, and fellow voters to literally “turn the page” and vote “yes” on Question 1, found on the back of New Jersey’s mail-in ballots (for the most part).

Here are the main takeaways from our interview:

Takeaway #1: Legalization will help New Jersey’s economy

When discussing the economic effects of legalizing cannabis, Axel said that a fully regulated New Jersey cannabis industry could bring in as much as $1 billion in sorely-needed annual tax revenue. After first citing a lower $300 million annual tax revenue estimate, he clarified: “That’s an incredibly conservative estimate, and it doesn’t include the ancillary businesses that would be created,” such as trucks, security, graphic design, packaging, and HVAC installation and maintenance services. “It could be all the way up to $1 billion in extra tax revenue,” he said, “just by legalizing a plant.”

Takeaway #2: Legalization can right the wrongs of Prohibition

NJ CAN 2020’s plans centralize, as the campaign’s website says, “legalization that focuses on racial and social justice as a required component.” That’s why, in our conversation, Axel reminded viewers that the cannabis arrest rate in New Jersey for Black people is 3.5 times higher than for white people – despite a lack of racial disparity in cannabis consumption.

These arrests certainly don’t come cheap. “The state of New Jersey wastes $143 million per year processing simple marijuana arrests,” Axel said bluntly during our conversation – and that’s before the money the state spends on cannabis-related trials and public defender salaries. Plus, Axel said, this $143 million figure reflects 32,000 annual arrests, whereas New Jersey now makes over 37,000 annual arrests and thus spends even more money per year. 

Axel emphasized that the majority of cannabis arrests are “somebody carrying a joint. This is somebody carrying a dimebag.” In other words, why are we spending so much on activities that don’t harm other people? “Alcohol is way more addictive…but because cannabis is illegal…it tears people apart,” Axel said, citing the loss of student financial aid, current jobs, future job opportunities, and parental custody associated with illegal drug charges.

Takeaway #3: Legalization positively impacts communities

Axel reinforced that social progress isn’t nearly the only benefit of cannabis legalization. That’s not just supposition – he pointed to other areas’ legalization successes throughout our conversation. 

Axel noted that “Colorado [and] Washington have actually seen a decrease in cannabis DUIs” after legalization and that in Aurora, Colorado, cannabis industry tax revenue led to “a brand new $40 million community center.” In Oakland, California, a Black or brown person is awarded a license for a plant-touching entity every time a white person does. And in Las Vegas, Axel said, “cannabis has now become part of the culture” and suggested the same could happen in New Jersey’s own casino haven, Atlantic City.

Takeaway #4: Legalization means a regulated industry

When Axel addressed audience questions about industry regulation, he discussed bans on marketing to children. “If we’re talking about a regulated market…you can’t even enter the room unless you’re 21,” he said. “The person that’s giving marijuana to children is the back-alley dealer. … In states that have legalized, youth usage has dropped. We’re at a national low when it comes to youth usage.” (Every state with a regulated market, whether medical or adult-use, has state-mandated restrictions on marketing with this express purpose top of mind.)

Axel added that, in a regulated market, “We know exactly the potency, the strain, the effects you’re going to get, and the THC levels. That’s a lot safer,” adding that this level of transparency is not readily available from black market products. He also said that a regulated market means control by the people, not by corporations. “It’s really important to communicate to your legislators [that] you want to see an equitable program built here by New Jerseyans, for New Jerseyans,” he said.

Takeaway #5: You can vote to legalize cannabis in New Jersey

Perhaps Axel’s most crucial point: Turning NJ CAN 2020’s talking points into action means properly completing your 2020 election ballot. Much of NJ CAN 2020’s work, he said, is “educating people about how to vote by mail correctly, walking them through exactly what you need to do.” That’s why the campaign uses the hashtag #TurnThePage on social media: “We’re on the backside of 99.99% of the ballots,” he said, so “turn the page on cannabis prohibition…but also, turn the page on your ballot.” 

The referendum’s location on ballots is a primary concern. In 2016, “900,000 more people voted for president than [for the casino] ballot question,” Axel said, perhaps because many voters didn’t know the question was there. “Two-thirds of New Jerseyans support cannabis legalization,” he added, but if people don’t see the referendum question, “this all of a sudden becomes a 51/49 race.” And it’s not just a potentially narrow race – it’s an urgent one. “If we don’t get this done now,” said Axel, “the earliest we can attempt it again is in four years,” noting that ballot measures cannot be reintroduced for quite some time after a failed vote.

To that end, we’re calling for immediate action. At CannaContent, we stand with NJ CAN 2020’s goal to legalize, tax, and regulate adult-use cannabis while ensuring racial and social justice in all legislation. To learn more about NJ CAN 2020 and the cannabis legalization ballot referendum, you can ask questions and raise awareness on social media using the hashtag #TurnThePage, call your county clerk, or visit the NJ CAN 2020 website. There, you can find more reasons to vote for legalization, check your voter registration, register to vote, receive a mail-in ballot, find your polling place, and read the ballot referendum in full. You can also get involved with the campaign – and if you do, we’ll see you on the trail.

The Costly Mistake of Criminalizing Cannabis Possession

The Costly Mistake of Criminalizing Cannabis Possession

It’s been a federal crime to possess, cultivate, or distribute the cannabis plant or any products derived from it since the 1930s. The law enforcement policy built around the criminalization of cannabis has become a behemoth, arresting between half a million and 750,000 people per year for possession alone.

For many, a possession arrest isn’t as simple as paying a fine and moving on with life. The consequences for such a small action can haunt someone for years and decades, preventing them from advancing their careers, finding housing, and contributing to their communities. Now that 30 states have legalized medical marijuana, and nine have legalized social use for adults, more are realizing – and advocating for – records expungement for those convicted of cannabis possession, a group that totaled 8.2 million through the first decade of the 21st century alone.

Who gets arrested?

Cannabis possession arrests in the U.S. are not evenly distributed; some states arrest far more people than others, while others hardly arrest anyone (thanks to legalization). In 2016, Wyoming was the state with the highest arrest rate, at 415.2 arrests per 100,000 people. That figure includes a total of 2,248 possession arrests. New Jersey was home to the second highest arrest rate at 400.4 arrests per 100,000 citizens, and third for total possession arrests at 32,263. South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Missouri rounded out the top five states where you’re most likely to get arrested for cannabis. New York had the second-highest number of total possession arrests at 36,977, while Texas was far and away the leader in total possession arrests at 63,599.

Justice is not colorblind when it comes to cannabis possession, either. People of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds tend to use cannabis at the same rates. However, arrest rates are far higher for people of color than for white people. Black people are about three times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession, depending on the region. In New York City, black and Latino men comprised 86 percent of cannabis possession arrests between 2014 and 2016.

The steep consequences of cannabis possession arrests

Most cannabis-related arrests are for the possession of a small quantity of flower. In fact, cannabis possession busts were estimated to account for five percent of all arrests in the U.S. in 2016 – that’s more than murder, rape, assault, and robbery arrests combined.

Having a record associated with a non-violent cannabis arrest exacts a significant penalty. Mandatory minimum sentences and a three-strike policy have contributed to harsh punishments for merely possessing a small amount of cannabis for personal use. Here’s a look at consequences for violating federal cannabis possession laws:

  • First offense: This is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and up to $1,000 in fines.
  • Second offense: The federal penalties for a second offense increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence and up to two-year prison terms, as well as a $2,500 fine.
  • Third offense: For a third arrest, possession could be considered a felony. It carries a 90-day mandatory minimum incarceration sentence, up to three years in prison, and a $5,000 fine.

It doesn’t just stop at fines and imprisonment, however. The punitive system for non-violent drug offenses can follow someone for years, or even decades:

  • Possession charges could result in a person losing his or her academic scholarships, barring otherwise motivated and intelligent people, particularly people from disadvantaged and poor communities, from attaining educational opportunities needed to advance their lives and their communities.
  • Past convictions could result in the denial of mortgages or business loans, preventing people who’ve answered for their non-violent crime from owning a home or business.
  • A criminal background check conducted by an employer could preclude a previously convicted person from attaining employment, regardless of their qualifications for the job.
  • Previous possession charges could result in the loss of public benefits, compounding poverty in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

Legalization and automatic expungement

Legalization could ameliorate some of the most severe consequences of cannabis arrests. For starters, fewer people are being arrested, preventing new people from facing the challenges that others before them have faced and reducing the taxpayer expense on enforcement.

In Colorado, arrests fell by more than 80 percent from 2010 to 2014, when the first retail dispensaries for legal cannabis opened. In Washington state, arrests fell by 98 percent between 2012 and 2013 following legalization, resulting in a savings of over $200 million in taxpayer funds spent on enforcement. The same trend was observed in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

While legalization has improved conditions considerably in many states, it has not necessarily undone the injustices of the past. Those convicted of possession charges still contend with the difficulties of finding a job, obtaining a loan, or obtaining public benefits. As legalization is normalized, however, states are grappling with how to best deal with those with prior convictions.

In California, for example, adult felony convictions related to cannabis were reclassified as misdemeanors following the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016. However, those charges still carry the potential for up to six months in jail, and convicts must first petition the courts to have their sentences revised accordingly. The state legislature is working to improve conditions through consideration of a bill that would include automatic expungement for a prior conviction for an act not considered a crime as of January 1, 2017.

In New Jersey, where an active effort to legalize adult-use cannabis is underway, advocates have been pushing hard for lawmakers to include automatic expungement in the legalization bill. Advocacy organizations like New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey have all called on Garden State lawmakers to include automatic expungement in any final legalization bill. New Jersey State Assemblyman Jamel C. Holley (D-Union) has been a vocal supporter of automatic expungement legislation as well.

Healing wounds caused by criminalized cannabis possession

For states to truly correct the sins of the past, it is essential for any cannabis policy reform to include automatic expungement for people arrested or incarcerated for cannabis related crimes. That ensures those who were prosecuted by the state will be retroactively forgiven and, ideally, allowed to enter the newly legal market as an entrepreneur or employee without a criminal record.

While many states are responding to the popular support for legalization, the federal government has neither changed the classification of cannabis nor the penalties associated with cannabis arrests. Today, cannabis remains a schedule I drug under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s classification, which means it is considered a drug with “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.” That means federal authorities could arrest someone for possession and the strict consequences would still apply, regardless of state law, no matter how noble or liberal the state law may be.

The cost of criminalizing cannabis is immense, both financially and socially. So long as federal prohibition remains in place, people will be fined and incarcerated for non-violent crimes at a rate that exceeds violent crime nationwide. States can and should work toward legalization and automatic expungement, but a comprehensive policy that legalizes, regulates, and taxes cannabis, as well as expunges the records of those convicted of non-violent offenses, is a social, economic, and moral imperative.

Ready for New Jersey’s forthcoming cannabis industry?

Business opportunities are quite literally cropping up left and right in the cannabis industry. It’s only fitting that New Jersey – the Garden State – is poised to join the fray.

This brand-new industry comes with a lot of questions, and planning ahead is of the utmost importance. What will the cannabis industry look like in New Jersey? What kinds of opportunities are there? How can someone apply for and obtain funding in such a tricky space?

For those who are thinking about entering the cannabis industry or who need to expand their knowledge, there’s three ways to get those important questions answered:

  • Read, read, read. The cannabis industry is constantly changing. Understanding that there will be changes, and rapid ones at that, will help you anticipate bends in the road.
  • Hear from the best. The cannabis industry may be so new to many of us, but there are pioneers who have been leading the industry for decades. Learn from their experience, and you’ll be two steps ahead when legal adult-use cannabis becomes a reality in New Jersey.
  • Network! Building connections in the cannabis space is crucial to success. Membership organizations, state-level organizations and others provide a “safe space” to network in a world where working with a federally-illegal substance may be a tricky prospect.

We keep these three points in mind every time we attend an event. What can we learn from those who came before us? What has changed in the industry? How can we take our knowledge to the next level, and how does that knowledge take our clients to the next level? That’s why we’re particularly excited to attend New Jersey Cannabis Symposium’s second installation on finance and investment on March 29th.

The NJCS’s Finance and Investing event features eight panelists with deep experience working in the cannabis industry, with an opportunity to ask questions of experienced professionals in funding, legal and other spaces. Attendees will learn about raising capital, opportunities to invest, taxation, banking and strategic structuring. The event also offers an opportunity to hear from trailblazers like NORML founder R. Keith Stroup, who’s been advocating for cannabis legalization for decades! We can’t wait to learn from what he has to share.

Best of all, events like NJCS produce countless opportunities for newcomers and interested parties to establish a presence and promote their brands and missions. The entrepreneurs we plan to meet may need an informative, mobile-friendly website, a well-written and beautifully-designed pitch deck, or want to start their organic search strategy early to truly enter the market from a position of strength. We’re excited to hear their needs and share how we can help them look their best, both online and in print. (Read more about what CannaContent offers here.)

Networking sessions bookend the evening’s programming, giving hundreds of attendees the opportunity to connect and discover ways to work together even before the adult-use cannabis legislation makes its way through Trenton.

For veterans and newcomers alike, there’s seldom a better opportunity than entering the melting pot that is an event like the New Jersey Cannabis Symposium. Chances to learn and forge connection are everywhere. This is an opportunity that we certainly won’t be passing up, and we hope to see you there too. Visit the NJCS website to learn more and to register!

Debunk the Skunk: Responding to Common Cannabis Myths

Proper cannabis education: we need it, and we’re not getting it.

Accurate information is shockingly absent in a world where many were brought up with the singular cannabis message of “just don’t do it.” This gaping black hole allows rumors about the plant to fly unchecked on both sides of the debate.

In New Jersey, where the conversation is heating up on local, regional and state levels, this missing knowledge is glaringly obvious. We shouldn’t be too surprised in a world where most cannabis knowledge is formed by D.A.R.E. and Cheech and Chong movies (not that there’s anything wrong with those!) — it leaves New Jersey citizens ill-equipped to properly analyze and rebut claims of addiction and lazy stoners hogging the line at McDonald’s. 

To get some answers to some of the most common tropes against cannabis, we turned to two Garden State-based advocates who use their platforms to dispel misnomers, misconstrued facts and outright lies about this hot-button topic. While there are dozens of reasons to legalize adult-use cannabis out there, we focused on two general, important categories: public health and children.

About our cannabis advocates, Jessie Gill and Ed “Lefty” Grimes

A freak work accident lurched Jessie Gill of MarijuanaMommy headfirst into a years-long battle with a spinal injury which directly affected her ability to work as a nurse and parent her children. Opiates, Valium, and medication to subside the side effects of opiates and Valium failed. She underwent a spinal fusion surgery — and continued to suffer. After reluctantly trying cannabis, Gill quickly went from a skeptic to a believer, launching her website to share how medical marijuana can restore quality of life to those with chronic pain and other ailments.

Grimes is a medical marijuana patient who found out firsthand that local governments and police departments are not well-versed with New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws. With his organization Sativa Cross, he organizes groups of fellow patients and allies (donning dress shirts and ties, per his request) to shed light on the law at council meetings and police stations, in what is aptly dubbed the “Ignorance is No Excuse” tour. Grimes is known for his direct approach, often consuming his medicine for back pain outside municipal buildings and police stations (New Jersey law allows for the public consumption of medicinal marijuana, as long as the area is not a designated no smoking area). His tour has added many new stops since Gov. Phil Murphy’s election last November, appearing at municipal and county freeholder meetings where even the possibility of banning adult-use cannabis is being discussed.

Both Gill and Grimes quit opiates after switching to medical marijuana.

Myth #1: “Cannabis is addictive.”

Fact: Cannabis addiction rates are lower than alcohol and opiates.

Some advocates say that cannabis is totally harmless, while opponents push its addiction properties as yet another opiate crisis. Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

According to UCLA’s Center for Cannabis Research, the addiction potential for cannabis is around 10 percent — about the same as a serious caffeine dependence. Comparatively, addiction potential for alcohol is 15 percent.

Access to substances with addictive properties is nothing new in American society, or really, any society around the world. Any one of us can walk out the door right now and buy a cup of coffee with the same possibility of serious addiction as cannabis. We can buy a sugar-laden snack cake — also an addictive substance — and eat it before we get back to our cars. We can buy cough syrup and decongestants, which also have abuse potential, at the same stores in which we can buy caffeine and sugar.

Citing cannabis’s addictive properties is not a reason to ban it in light of all the other available substances with addiction potential out there. In fact, it’s the very reason to bring it out from the shadows and regulate its sale, just like the alcohol and decongestants we already have to show ID to buy.

As advocates, Gill and Grimes acknowledge that cannabis can be addictive — an important truth which shouldn’t be buried in the ongoing adult use debate — while advocating for its full legalization. 

“While it’s true that marijuana can be addictive for some, it’s far less addictive than opiates,” Gill said. “More importantly, marijuana is not deadly like opiates or alcohol.”

Grimes said that addiction is not about availability of the substance, but about the individual who may develop an addiction.

“There will always be people who abuse things: food, sex, gambling, whatever,” Grimes said.

Myth #2: “There will be a spike in DUIs.”

Fact: High drivers are already being busted.

One talking point heard from officials and citizens alike is that the roads will become more dangerous, that legalization means that more people will drive high and states with legal adult-use cannabis have seen an increase in car crashes.

According to Dr. Jeff Chen at UCLA’s Center for Cannabis Research, the risk of a car crash doubles while driving high. Comparatively, driving drunk raises the risk of a car crash 6 to 8 times. Preliminary studies show that the risk of texting while driving is even higher than driving drunk!

The fact is, high drivers on the road are just as much a concern today as they were yesterday and as they will be tomorrow. Laws against high driving are already on the books: Driving Under the Influence charges can be issued for any substance which impairs driving, legal or illegal. People who drive while high get fined, accrue points and have their licenses suspended or lost.

For those who point to an uptick in DUIs in legal adult-use states, it’s important to note that correlation does not mean causation. The data regarding DUIs and cannabis use didn’t exist in Colorado, a crucial point raised during the New Jersey Assembly’s March 5th hearing on adult-use cannabis. Colorado legislator Dan Pabon’s advice? Start tracking the data now so on-the-road dangers can be effectively measured and controlled.

That being said, Grimes told CannaContent that he is concerned about edibles, notoriously more potent than other consumption methods, and their impact on road safety.

“Someone who is high shouldn’t be driving, and you can tell just by looking at them that they’re practically drunk behind the wheel,” Grimes said. “There needs to be awareness about edibles and their delayed effects. What if someone feels fine, and then the edibles hit them while they’re driving home?”

Myth #3: “Kids should not be exposed to cannabis.”

Fact: “Your child will encounter this substance… they should be prepared to handle it.”

Education and awareness does not involve offering a child a pre-rolled joint with a bow on top. Just like abstinence-only education has not fully prevented teen pregnancy, ignoring or demonizing the subject of cannabis will not discourage children from using it.

Currently, a child’s formal drug education curriculum can be distilled down to the school program Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). Chances are, their friends had the same education, and their parents may have gone through D.A.R.E. or had formal no education at all.

We use education very generously here. The knowledge (is that even the right word?) delivered in these programs does not reflect current research, relies on scare tactics and flat-out falsehoods, and likely contradicts what a child sees in their neighborhood, in the media, or even at home.

When the education system is broken, it leaves children, and even parents, ill-equipped to discuss the issue. That could lead to dangerous consequences down the line, including underage use. That’s why Gill regularly talks to her school-aged son about cannabis, both medicinal and adult use.

“Kids SHOULD be exposed to marijuana — NOT smoke or foods, but open and honest education about the topic,” Gill said. “Just like we teach kids about alcohol, gambling and sex, we should honestly educate our kids about marijuana. There’s a 99.99 percent chance your child will encounter this substance. They should be prepared to handle it… From a medical perspective, if my child, Heaven forbid, ever requires medical marijuana, I don’t want him to fear it any more than he would fear a traditional medicine.”

Myth #4: “If it’s legal, kids will be able to get it easier.”

Fact: “Drug dealers are the ones who don’t care.”

If anything, legalizing adult-use cannabis will make it harder for those under 21, who should not be consuming recreationally (do we even need to say that?), to access cannabis.

“I was able to get cannabis easier when I was younger because it was not regulated — it was hard to get beer,” Grimes said. “We do want to keep cannabis out of the hands of children, aside from medicine of course, and that’s why it needs to be regulated.”

Dispensaries risk expensive fines and even losing their license, which will likely cost millions to obtain, if they facilitate underage sales. What business owner would take that risk to make a few bucks? And if they do, the consequences are the same as a bar which serves alcohol to those under 21: fines, license suspension, or whatever else New Jersey’s future cannabis regulations decide.

“Unionized employees, business owners — they won’t give up their wages and insurance to give a kid a bunch of beer when delivering alcohol, and it will be the same with cannabis,” Grimes said. “Drug dealers are the ones who don’t care.”

Now that you can debunk some cannabis myths, what can you do next?

  • Talk about the subject with friends and family. Much of the rumors and misinformation can be traced back to a simple lack of education on the subject. By framing cannabis regulation in the same terms as alcohol and cigarettes, it will help to explain what cannabis legalization means and the positive impact it can have in your neighborhood.
  • If you’re a parent, speak openly with your kids. If you feel your child is ready to have an open and honest conversation about cannabis, have the conversation. Children could be better-equipped to say no when they have the tools to say no — tools based in fact, not in scare tactics.
  • Consider attending a council meeting or public hearing. Lobbying or speaking at public hearings is an effective way to share knowledge and express public support for legal adult-use cannabis. The state of New Jersey is holding three hearings in April (the third will be held at Middlesex County College). The Ignorance is No Excuse tour has scheduled several appearances over the coming months. Join their Facebook group for more information about future hearings and dates.