Not so fast on legalizing weed, says N.J. senate leader of black caucus

Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 01:00:28 PM. State lawmakers are lining up to speak out against the perceived momentum behind legalizing marijuana, since Democrat Phil Murphy won the governor's race on a platform to legalize pot.

TRENTON -- One of New Jersey's longest-serving state lawmakers said he plans to hold public hearings to question the next governor's push to legalize marijuana next year.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, announced Monday he would use his authority as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus to call public hearings to explore the negative consequences felt in the eight states in which marijuana possession and sales are legal.

"We know there are negative factors that we will need to safeguard against, from children's access to marijuana-infused edibles to motor vehicle accidents caused by impaired driving to the effect of marijuana on babies and the impact of legalization on communities of color," according to Rice's statement.

The hearings would be scheduled sometime after Phil Murphy is sworn-in as governor Jan. 16, Senate Majority spokeswoman Trish Graber said.

"As chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, I plan to convene hearings at various locations around the state to make sure that we really delve into the details of this issue," Rice said.

Rice is not alone. One by one, state lawmakers are lining up to speak out against the perceived momentum behind legalizing marijuana, since Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the governor's race.

Murphy's platform included legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use -- to end the disproportionate jailing of black people arrested and convicted for pot possession, and to launch a tax-rich legal market estimated to net the state $300 million a year.

Newly-appointed state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, was the first to express concern about legalizing pot following Murphy's Dec. 7 win.

"I want to make sure it makes sense," said Coughlin, a member of the Assembly since 2010 . "As with any bill -- particularly any bill that would create something new -- I think the devil is really in the details. And I think we need to understand it in its totality."  

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State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who supports legalization, wields the power to decide which bills receive public hearings and floor votes. He has enthusiastically supported legalization since taking a trip to Colorado with state Sen. Nicholas Scutari D-Union, the bill's sponsor.

But using his position as the leader of black lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature, Rice said he intends to explore how New Jerseyans could be hurt by a legal marijuana market.

"I look forward to working with the members of the Legislative Black Caucus, with community groups and with many others as we examine this issue. The bottom line is that as we proceed, we must do so with caution," Rice said.

State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio R-Morris, also has encouraged his Senate colleagues to pump the brakes on pot legalization.

"Governor-elect Murphy sees a $300 million tax revenue windfall. I see a mass of heartache and trouble," Pennacchio said in a Nov. 14 statement. "New Jersey's roadways are extremely congested and we don't have a full-proof weed sobriety test. A mad dash to legalization, without taking the time to examine the consequences, is a recipe for disaster."

State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, praised Rice's call for more discussion. If he had to vote today, Vitale said he would vote against legalizing marijuana, and he knows other Democrats besides Rice share his view.

"I just want to be thoughtful about this," Vitale said."Even Colorado has its issues."

Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

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