Honorable Senate Judiciary Committee Members,
My name is Vanessa Maria and I am the Director of the East Coast Cannabis Coalition (ECCC), a regional network based in New Jersey working together with activists, organizations, and other individuals to legalize cannabis at the state and national level. I also serve on the board of directors of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, a New Jersey based nonprofit whose mission is to educate the public and provide advocacy regarding medicinal marijuana. I submit this testimony and urge you to act as fast as possible to legalize cannabis in New Jersey.
Across the United States, every 42 seconds someone is arrested for cannabis. This includes the 22,000 people are arrested every year for possession of cannabis in New Jersey. The state spends a staggering $127 million dollars in cannabis prohibition enforcement annually. Cannabis arrests account for 43% of all drug arrests in the Garden State.
History tells us cannabis was outlawed in 1937 because hemp was a major competitor with nylon and timber. Even then the American Medical Association spoke out against prohibition and advocated for its medicinal uses. History also informs us how Randolph Hearst used his vast media empire to spread propaganda and misinformation about cannabis that still pervades American culture. Several US presidents commissioned studies and investigations on the impact of cannabis prohibition and each time independent commissions came back with the same assessment, Cannabis should be decriminalized and that it has very real medicinal uses. Instead of listening to the commissions' recommendations, Nixon and Johnson implemented even tougher restrictions on the plant. Reagan and Clinton followed suit with tougher sentencing requirements and no tolerance for multiple offenders.
The reason this has happened is not because our elected officials did not know better, but instead because this is a targeted assault on people of color. The reality is cannabis prohibition and drug policy more broadly is being used as the New Jim Crow. Read Michelle Alexander's best selling book and you will understand how legislators have deliberately enacted laws that discriminate against people of color and the poor. If you read the ACLU report, Black and White in America, then you will see unforgiving evidence of the racial disparity as it relates to arrests of blacks and whites for cannabis. Across the US African – Americans are 2.5 more times likely to be arrested for cannabis than whites. In some states its up to 8 times more likely. This has led to the mass incarceration of people of color. In New Jersey, we are complicit in this abhorrent process by continuing to allow 22,000 people to be arrested each year for cannabis possession.
There are many severe negative impacts to those who have criminal records for drug arrests. They suffer from not being able to find a job, risk deportation, losing custody of their kids, not being able to find housing, incurring expensive legal fees and debt, not qualifying for state resources, and many more negative effects. It is immoral to continue to inflict these burdens on cannabis users. The punishment does not fit the crime as people arrested for cannabis pose no real threat their communities.
There will be some who testify today that cannabis is a gateway drug but will be unable to offer any scientific evidence qualifying that statement, because there is none. In fact, research offers us quite the opposite conclusion, that the majority of cannabis users never go on to abuse harder drugs. The illicit nature of cannabis is the only thing that puts users at risk of being exposed to other drugs. If it were sold legally in licensed and regulated facilities, cannabis users would never be offered other drugs from the vendor. Furthermore, research shows us that people who abuse drugs tend to fall into one of the following categories: have a mental health disorder, have suffered from a traumatic event, has had a parent that was an abuser of drugs, was prescribed pharmaceuticals and became physically addicted, and/or became exposed to drugs at a very young age. Ask any mental health or recovery professional and they will confirm these findings. The real gateway drugs are alcohol and prescription opiates. I should also not that in states where cannabis has been legalized, the amount of deaths by opiate overdoses has decreased. Other myths include believing youth access to cannabis will increase, however in states where cannabis has been legalized, that number has also fallen.
The State of New Jersey has recognized cannabis' medicinal uses. International peer-reviewed research shows us that cannabis shows promising results in treating over 100 different conditions. Yet in NJ, we only recognize 12 of them. This has made the program incredibly restrictive with only about 5,000 people registered for the program in a population of 9 million. Even US Senator Booker has recognized the merits of medicinal cannabis with the authoring of the federal CARERS Act. Yet, the Christie administration has done everything in its power to restrict access and deny the proven benefits of medicinal cannabis.
In addition to not enough qualifying conditions to become eligible to participate in the program, there are not dispensaries, doctors registered to write prescriptions, not enough products, and it is entirely too expensive. What low income New Jerseyan can afford to buy an ounce of medical cannabis for $535 dollars when many cannot afford to pay for heat or healthy foods? It is criminal that we charge so much for medicine when in legal states like Colorado one can easily find an ounce of cannabis anywhere from $150 to $200. If you were in Oregon or California, you might not even have to buy it as home growers of cannabis are ubiquitous and often share their cannabis with friends and family. This is why in addition to legal retail sales of cannabis we MUST allow for home cultivation. It is no different then growing aloe or tea for medicinal use.
Across the nation more than half of the country has some form of regulated cannabis. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis and so far have not suffered negative consequences as a result. Along the East Coast DC has legal cannabis, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine all have medical cannabis and decriminalization laws. New York state has medical cannabis and NYC has decriminalization laws. Why does New Jersey continue to arrest people for cannabis possession when our neighbors to the north and south do not?
Finally, cannabis should be legalized so we can have access to a green economy that has so far brought in tens of millions in tax revenues to legal states. A green economy would create jobs, allow for innovation and research of cannabis products, increase the per capita income and GDP of NJ, and allow more women to become executives in this industry where otherwise they would not have the same access.
As a member of CMMNJ and the ECCC, I hear stories every day about how people's lives are negatively affected by cannabis prohibition. I hear from medical patients, people who have been arrested and incarcerated, and from people who want to start their own cannabis businesses. I do not know as moral human beings how you could listen to these same stories and not act on these injustices. For all these reasons, I urge you to legalize cannabis in New Jersey, stop the disproportionate arrests and incarceration of blacks and Latinos, allow more access for medical patients, end the criminalization of using medicinal cannabis, open up a market for a green economy to flourish, and end the war on drugs. I thank you for your time and attention to this matter and for hosting this important hearing.
Vanessa Maria – ECCC & CMMNJ