AG Nominee Says Hands Off Legal Marijuana

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Promoters on legalizing marijuana in New Jersey talk a lot about creating a multimillion-dollar industry in New Jersey.

They push all the right buttons – job creation, social justice and tax revenue. What they don’t talk about, at least publicly, is that marijuana use remains illegal under federal law.

And then there is the potential negative impact on the public health, which is uncertain.

“There has always been a big leap of faith that the Trump administration will never stand in the way of legal marijuana but it really depends on who the next Attorney General is going to be,” says John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey.

In January, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew Obama-era policy that had allowed legal marijuana to prosper in several states across the country -- and which enabled New Jersey to consider such a move for this year.

Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana legalization that likened cannabis to drugs like heroin, rescinded the policy in 2013, which basically allowed states that legalized marijuana to enforce their own laws while the Department of Justice focused its resources on keeping marijuana out of the hands of minors.

The new directive was the preverbal 500-pound gorilla in the room, never mentioned in public by promoters and would-be entrepreneurs, says Sarno.

It restored federal prosecution of marijuana use and some state legislators considering legalization remained cautious because of the conflict with federal law.  

“The conflict also allowed employers to continue drug testing because a positive test for marijuana use was a positive test for an illegal drug. Pretty simple.” says Sarno.

But Sessions’ has since resigned and a year-to-the-day that he issued his directive, the nominee to fill his job, William Barr, has stated that he would most likely revert back to the hands-off policy.

“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Investments have been made. There has been reliance on it. I don’t think it’s appropriate to upset those interests.”

“To the extent people are complying with the state laws in distribution and production and so forth, we’re not going to go after that,” Barr said.

“Assuming Barr gets confirmed by the Senate, it looks like the industry has bagged their man” quips Sarno, “but it remains to be seen whether New Jersey legalizes any time soon.”  

NJ.Com reports that there is a stalemate between the governor and legislative leaders on how marijuana will be regulated it is far from clear whether a legalization bill has a majority in the legislature.

At the same time, doctors and other health professionals have flagged factors like the rise in marijuana exposure among children — which tripled in New Jersey from 2017 to 2018 — and for a possible association with certain psychiatric conditions, and an increase in auto accidents in states that already have legalized cannabis consumption.

These professionals say there’s not enough solid science to show that the benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh the public-health dangers involved with expanding access to the drug.

“The impact on the public health is a legitimate concern. We already know that alcohol abuse costs the U.S. economy $250 billion a year and, along with tobacco use, is big driver of higher healthcare costs,” says Sarno.

He suggests that part of the cannabis tax be dedicated to state-of-the-art public health research that gets reported regularly to the public.