U.S. crackdown could slow New Jersey move toward legal marijuana
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' possible crackdown on marijuana could slow New Jersey's rush to legalize the drug for adults this year.
Sessions, a marijuana opponent, is moving to end an Obama-era policy under which six states and the District of Columbia permitted no-questions-asked marijuana sales since 2012, according to a memo from his office. California began allowing recreational marijuana use on Jan. 1. Maine and Massachusetts also have been moving toward legalization.
New Jersey was poised to join those states this year. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy embraced legal marijuana as a candidate, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a fellow Democrat, indicated that a vote on permitting adult use of the drug was likely early this year.
Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said the governor-elect was aware of Sessions' memo but had no further comment. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who has advocated legalizing marijuana at the national level, said Sessions was reviving a failed approach to enforcement that disproportionately targets non-white populations and wastes billions of dollars on police and jailing.
"This unjust, backwards decision is wrong for America, and will prove to be on the wrong side of history," Booker said in a written statement.
LEGAL MARIJUANA:$1 billion marijuana windfall for NJ? Some say it's possible
EDITORIAL:Marijuana smoke, mirrors and revenue
IMPACT ON POLICE:How will legalizing marijuana impact police work?
Sessions, however, reiterated in his memo that marijuana is a "dangerous drug" whose sale and cultivation amounts to a "serious crime." The Republican attorney general's memo directed federal prosecutors "to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country."
In New Jersey, that decision would fall to Craig Carpenito, whom Sessions appointed as interim U.S. attorney this week. Carpenito is a private lawyer who served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 2005 to 2008 under Chris Christie, who has strongly opposed legal marijuana as governor. Carpenito has not publicly voiced an opinion on marijuana laws, and the U.S. attorney's office in Newark declined to comment, referring questions to the Justice Department in Washington.
In New Jersey, advocates for legalized marijuana -- who have touted studies showing as much as $1 billion in tax revenue for the state -- reacted with dismay to Sessions' announcement. Still, they said that until Congress puts money behind the promised crackdown, there's no reason for New Jersey to back off of Murphy's legalization push.
"We don't expect any real change anytime soon, but I do expect that the states that have the most to lose under a federal crackdown have been strategizing," said Scott Rudder, a Republican former state legislator who heads the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. "Without the funding to back this up, (the Sessions memo) is just a piece of paper."
Sweeney's office had no comment on the Sessions order.
Murphy and Sweeney had said they expect to pass and sign legislation allowing legal marijuana use in New Jersey within 100 days of Murphy's inauguration. The governor-elect has said taxing and regulating the drug would yield as much as $300 million a year in revenue to the state while allowing police to focus on more serious crimes.