NJ Republicans should hold the line on recreational pot

In a recent column published on the blog InsiderNJ, marijuana lobbyist Ken Wolski argued that legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes “is the best way to get this medicine to the most people,” adding, “legalization changes cannabis from a drug that requires multiple doctor visits to one that can be purchased over the counter, like aspirin.”  Was Wolski, who is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana, letting the cat out of the bag?  Has this been the goal all along?  Was “medical” marijuana merely a way to grease the slippery slope towards legalization and the inevitable expansion of the drug’s use?

Remember that tobacco too had once been promoted for its “medical benefits” as were opioids.  Both got well out of control.

Wolski’s column urged Republican legislators to support the highly flawed legalization bill being proposed by Governor Phil Murphy and the Democrat leadership in Trenton.  Let me add my voice to those who applaud the GOP for standing with those responsible Democrats who oppose it. 

When I first heard that the New Jersey legislature was considering a bill legalizing the use and sale of recreational marijuana, and expunging the record of anyone who had been charged with a related offense, I was both disheartened and spurred to action. As a Christian, I obviously oppose marijuana and its legalization on moral grounds, and as the pastor of City Baptist Church in Hoboken, I have had the responsibility of ministering to families affected by substance abuse. Knowing the devastation, and the harm that marijuana inflicts on individuals and families, and the crime and moral degradation it brings to communities, I determined to testify against the bill in person before the appropriations committee in Trenton.

I arrived in Trenton on March 18 with the intentions of opposing the recreational marijuana bill on the basis of morality, relying on my experiences and perspectives as a pastor who has worked with people through drug-related issues. However, as I sat waiting to testify, listening as the bill’s amendments were read, my mind turned to other substantial issues this bill would generate if passed into legislation. 

Beyond the moral implications of the bill, and its effect on families, this measure would present practical difficulties for employers and residents generally in many ways, a few of which would affect me personally.  You see, in addition to pastoring in an urban area, I am a third-generation real estate developer in northern and central New Jersey. With 420 garden apartments owned & managed by my family, and 100+ in the pipeline, the marijuana bill would be devastating to our operations. 

Two provisions of the bill are particularly alarming from this perspective: the fact that thousands of New Jersey residents would be able to smoke marijuana recreationally in their homes, and the expungement of previous arrests/convictions for possession.  While there are certainly other provisions that provide cause for concern and alarm, I would like to briefly address the implications and negative consequences of these two. 

First, as the owner of a multi-family unit, I have serious concerns about the negative impacts some residents’ use would cause to others. Many have heard of the harmful consequences of second-hand smoke, and where marijuana is involved, those concerns are magnified. A family, for example, with a baby, will now have to be concerned about their neighbor’s activities both in and outside the apartment. If a neighbor hosts a party where marijuana is smoked, that smoke would filter into the other person’s apartment and potentially harm their baby, and the parents are left with no recourse because the police would now be unable to stop the use. 

Second, from an employer perspective, the record expungement present serious problems for us in making hiring decisions. Under this bill, a now-criminal would have their record expunged if they had been convicted of using marijuana in the past, and that record would no longer be available to potential employers, indeed, we could not even ask about it. Marijuana use is certainly concerning to me as an employer, but even worse is the fact that often, when someone is convicted of possession, it is because they plead down from a much greater offense.  A drug dealer arrested and charged with 10 pounds of marijuana with the intent to distribute could have previously plea bargained down to simple possession. 

The new marijuana bill would hinder me from ever finding out about that potential employee’s behavior. That employee, if hired, would then be given access (with a master key) to all 420 residential units as a complex superintendent. Regular maintenance calls, inspections, and day-to-day operations would put our residents in great danger.   A drug dealer with a plea bargain down to simple possession would now be walking into the homes and lives of innocent people. This is not only a danger to residents, it is a serious liability to employers such as myself, and takes away a necessary tool for evaluating a potential candidate.

In closing, I urge the Republican legislative leadership to continue to stand with Democrats like Senator Ron Rice of Newark, a veteran and former police officer, who understand the problems presented by this legislation. This needs further debate and examination before any final consideration.

Phil Rizzo is the Pastor of City Baptist Church in Hoboken.