NEW YORK (MainStreet) Two greenhouses equipped to grow cannabis sit in Belvidere and Lincoln Park, New Jersey waiting for Governor Chris Christie to decriminalize and legalize the plant-based drug.
"There are currently three medical marijuana dispensaries but only one is operational," said Derek Peterson, co-owner of Terra Tech (TRTC), a horticulture equipment and commercial agriculture company. "The medical marijuana program has been sabotaged by the Christie administration so we're waiting for the next governor."
Until then, Peterson is making good use of the facilities by growing non marijuana-related herbs and leafy greens like basil and mint.
"We sell to local grocery stores, but once marijuana is legalized in New Jersey, we plan on changing the seed and growing cannabis," said Peterson, who also owns a cannabis dispensary in Oakland.
Pot laws may change in the Garden State sooner rather than later now that Democratic Senator Nicholas Scutari from Union County, New Jersey is sponsoring legislation that will introduce legalizing and taxing marijuana.
"So far Senate President Stephen Sweeney has indicated his support for the measure but wants to learn from the successes and mistakes of states like Colorado and Washington," Peterson told MainStreet. "With the New Jersey legislature being as supportive as they are, the state could be among the first few Northeastern states once we have a new Governor in office."
Senator Scutari is holding a press conference Monday afternoon at the statehouse to discuss how the legislation would work.
"New Jersey will have a hard time passing up the tax revenue from the sale of legal cannabis as well as money saved from not having to prosecute people because of possession," said Darrin C. Duber-Smith, professor with Metropolitan State University in Denver. "There's a lot of savings in not putting people through the justice system of courts, prison and probation but it would require a change in New Jersey's current criminal code."
Governor Christie, a Republican, has reportedly said he won't sign legislation that legalizes marijuana possession.
"The first challenge is convincing Chris Christie that he should get out of the way of reform efforts and let New Jersey voters decide how to regulate cannabis," said Michael Chazukow, outreach director with National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in New Jersey.
For now, non-medical possession or use of cannabis fall under very strict laws.
"We have a medical marijuana program that is so restrictive it is failing to serve the needs of its patients," Chazukow told MainStreet. "There are medical marijuana refugees fleeing New Jersey for Colorado to get quality access to their medicine. Patients who aren't registered with the state risk arrest and being denied treatment if caught."
Scutari reportedly modeled his legalization legislation after the state of Colorado's law, which legalized recreational marijuana on January 1.
"Colorado is best practices," Duber-Smith told MainStreet. "Scutari should duplicate what's happening here but wait a year to look over the numbers socially and economically."
State statistics Duber-Smith is advocating include cannabis sales revenues for the year, whether Colorado has experienced an increase in crime as a result of recreational legalization and how much money has been saved in corrections.
So far, Colorado reported $2 million in tax revenue the first month of marijuana sales.
"The New Jersey legislature has shown they are willing to support and work hard towards marijuana law reforms and a majority of New Jersey residents support legalization," Peterson said. "The climate is favorable and becoming increasingly more favorable."
Under current medical marijuana laws in New Jersey, facilities such as Peterson's require a license to grow and sell pot.
"The war on drugs has failed," said Chazukow. "In fact, cannabis prohibition is counter productive and self defeating. Our state must fully regulate cannabis in order to control it. A taxed and regulated cannabis market on the east coast would show that legal cannabis is a regulatory scheme that can work nationwide and not just in western states."
Changing New Jersey law would dry up the black market for pot and set an example for other states on the Eastern seaboard.
"The New York tri-state area is a bellwether for the rest of the country much like California," said Duber-Smith. "Any movement towards legalization is good and New Jersey is significant however it seems premature considering legalization is new on the west coast."
--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet