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New Jersey pols pick a deadly time to try to legalize pot

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Even before the pandemic, New Jersey was in crisis, with huge government debt, a sluggish economy and high taxes driving out firms and residents.

Amid these challenges, Jersey’s leaders have decided that legalizing marijuana — with all the risks and uncertainties it involves — should be a top priority. But few of the benefits that supporters claim the Garden State will reap from legalizing recreational pot have materialized in other states to the extent advocates promise; bad outcomes, from rising crime to a growing black market, are clearly apparent.

Worse, health officials have been warning for months about the dangers of smoking — including smoking pot — in a world wracked by a respiratory virus.

Key Jersey Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, have pushed to legalize recreational pot for three years. Resistance has come from some minority legislators worried about the impact of legal pot. State Sen. Ron Rice from Newark, a former cop, and a coalition of church leaders point out that several dozen mostly suburban communities across New Jersey have already voted against allowing pot sales in their towns.

Thus, the legal trade would likely be concentrated mostly in urban settings. Rice has instead proposed decriminalizing pot so that users don’t get prosecuted.

Legalization advocates are now putting the issue to voters, in Jersey’s case through Public Question 1, which will appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment on Nov. 3. Proponents argue that only full legalization will achieve their social-justice ends and make amends for the harm they say has been done to minority communities by years of arresting and prosecuting pot users.

In a poll last spring, some 61 percent of Jersey voters said that they would support legalization. The most common reason given was stamping out the black market.

But legalization rarely plays out the way voters think. The most common misconception is that the black market will disappear. Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational pot use. Two years ago, however, federal prosecutor Bob Troyer wrote that “Colorado’s black market has actually exploded after commercialization: we have become a source state, a theater of operation for sophisticated international drug trafficking and money laundering.”

With the black market has come continued violence as gangs jockey for a share of a still-lucrative business. At 2018 hearings held by Rice in New Jersey, a Las Vegas police captain testified that violence related to drug trafficking has increased since legalization. “In 2017, homicides related to an altercation over drugs grew by 21 percent, compared to 2016,” Capt. Todd Raybuck said. “Marijuana was the cause of the altercation in 53 percent of those homicides. In 2017, 58 percent of all drug-related murders involved marijuana.”

In California, would-be legal growers pitched legalization to end the war on drugs, but when the black market persisted afterward, they demanded a new war on drugs. “No one else should be operating,” one licensed grower complained in a New York Times story.

Even as Jersey suffers from high unemployment, legalizing pot will make more would-be workers unemployable, because many industries including construction, transportation and health care continue to test job applicants for marijuana use, for safety reasons. Studies have shown that workers who regularly use pot are more likely to cause workplace accidents, which endanger co-workers. One survey found that one in four workers who smoke pot in states where it’s legal admits to going to work high.

Jersey faces these risks for what would be at best a modest budget bounce. A state estimate put the potential taxes from legal pot at about $126 million annually after several years.

Meanwhile, in April, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned that smoking pot “could be an especially serious threat” during the COVID-19 crisis, because of the potential damage to lungs. Research has also found that cannabis is immunosuppressive, making users more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Even in the best of times, legalization is a questionable path for a state to follow. Legalizing marijuana now, as the world faces a deadly infectious disease, is one of the most baffling things Trenton has proposed in decades.

Steve Malanga is senior editor of City Journal, from which this column was adapted.

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