With the November 3rd presidential election a week away, a small contingent of voters across New Jersey is working to defeat a state ballot item that could legalize recreational marijuana use.
New Jersey neuroscientist Melissa Tasse studies the connection between addiction and the adolescent brain, and has concluded that marijuana can be a gateway drug leading to more dangerous substances.
“It all starts with kids who start smoking, who start drinking, who start using marijuana,” said Tasse, who is raising a teenage daughter in Summit, New Jersey. “Then, it causes brain changes, and some of these people will develop addictions to heroin later in life.”
Tasse fears the state’s legalization of cannabis for recreational use will increase teenagers’ use of marijuana.
“More and more children will use it and more and more children will develop marijuana use disorders,” Tasse predicted.
Tasse fears if the measure passes, weed in all of its forms — from brownies to gummies, will attract young users, and change communities for the worse. The measure, if it takes effect, does restrict cannabis use to adults 21 and older.
The Journal of Adolescent Health found that cannabis-related hospitalizations of young people in Colorado, age 13 to 21, climbed from 161 in 2005, to 777 in 2015 — the year after legal marijuana sales began in the state.
Polls taken in New Jersey on the subject show that voters are most likely in favor of making cannabis a legal recreational drug; cannabis has been legal for use as a medical treatment for a decade.
If the ballot measure passes, the New Jersey state legislature will have to craft a bill that lays out how the industry would operate, including how much to tax the pot, and whether to allow people with arrest records related to past marijuana crimes to get licenses to sell legally.
Gregg Edwards heads NoPotNJ.org, a bare-bones operation bearing the slogan, “Don’t Let NJ Go To Pot.”
He said he doesn’t like that the ballot question does not restrict the amount of THC, the main chemical compound found in cannabis that delivers the high. The referendum’s language also doesn’t restrict the form the cannabis can be sold in.
“Edibles like candy are permitted under this language,” he said.
The No Pot NJ campaign has been overshadowed by the cannabis industry, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state over the last two years to make cannabis legal.
Recent fundraising filings show two pro-legalization groups, NJCan2020 and Building Stronger Communities Action Fund, Inc., have raised just over $1 million. Of that, $800,000 came from The Scotts Company, which is known for its lawn and garden product, Miracle-Gro. Scotts also sells products to the marijuana industry. Edwards’s group has raised roughly $10,000.
He said the industry is seeking to make money, and ignoring the negative data, like a spike in young people being hospitalized after trying marijuana-laden products — one of the outcomes following Colorado’s legalization in 2012.
Industry watchers have said New Jersey is a strategic location for cannabis sales. The 9 million residents offer more customers, but it also could create a domino effect, encouraging surrounding states to legalize, and get the benefit of the tax revenue.
Marijuana Business Daily projects the industry could generate at least $840 million a year in sales, by 2024.
David Nathan, founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, is a psychiatrist and a member of NJCan2020.
Nathan, a father of adolescent children, agreed that marijuana can have adverse effects on the developing brain. But he said the best deterrent is information.
“If you want to stop drug use, the way to do it is through education, not prohibition,” Nathan said, noting that prohibiting marijuana hasn’t stopped teenagers from using it. It has, however, disproportionately derailed the lives of Black citizens due to the lopsided enforcement of drug laws. According to the ACLU, Black New Jersey residents are arrested at a rate of 3.5 times that of white residents, even though marijuana usage rates between the two groups are similar.
Meanwhile, Edwards is struggling to get the No Pot NJ message out.
He said campaigning has been challenging with a pandemic limiting his access to voters. He gave up his earlier plans for face-to-face meetings with PTA and law enforcement groups, in exchange for virtual messaging.
But he said he is not convinced that the polls reflect the voters’ positions. He points out that state legislators tried to pass a bill to legalize marijuana, but failed in March of 2019.
“If this issue were so popular, we wouldn’t be having this vote,” Edwards said. “The legislature would have passed the bill a year and a half ago […] They couldn’t do it, so there clearly were legislators who believed that this was not a popular thing for them to do.”
Legislators never voted to legalize weed but tossed the decision to voters when it was clear that too many senators were either on the fence or outright opposed legalization.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this year vowed to legalize recreational cannabis in the state as a way to raise revenue. He promised it last year, too. It still hasn’t happened.
Edwards hopes some voters will acknowledge the gravity of changing the state constitution to allow the legalization of recreational weed to be on the same page as other rights.
“To put cannabis in the constitution along with the […] right to free speech or to practice religion, and then have cannabis use in there seems to be odd.”