TRENTON — A healthy dose of skepticism was evident Tuesday at the Trenton War Memorial at a standing-room-only educational seminar for local and state officials on marijuana legalization.

There was nearly as much concern as enthusiasm about the prospect of allowing adults to use marijuana for recreational purposes, not just medical ones. Among the concerns is that making it legal would encourage its use by teens.

“The worry I have is that people in the hood are going ‘yeah,’” said Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson. “My son, my 18-year-old, every day he thinks it’s a joke: When are you pressing yes? When are you pressing yes? Yes, yes, marijuana. They think it’s a joke. They can’t wait for it to be legal. We have people in the street smoking it now because it’s a discussion, so they think it’s OK.”

Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said legalizing marijuana doesn’t mean parents can’t guide their children to make good choices.

“We need to have those honest discussions with our kids so that they understand that this marijuana legalization conversation does not mean that it would be legal for them,” Houenou said.

“The problem with what we have been doing thus far is that we have been keeping kids in the dark,” Houenou said. “Not just about drugs but about alcohol, about tobacco, about sex. We have been keeping them in the dark about what substances are, what they do, what their impact is.

“When we keep kids in the dark, that is when they go exploring. And they go exploring without any guidance, without any facts at their disposal,” she said. “And that is when children have the most potential for harm.”

George Schidlovsky, president of the Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center in Bellmawr, said all six of the current medical-marijuana dispensary permits agree cannabis is a medicine and not for recreational usage.

Schidlovsky said New Jersey’s next step should be expanding its medical program – in part by allowing current dispensaries to grow marijuana elsewhere in the state, other than at the address of their main facility, to ramp up to meet demand.

He said 400,000 patients could join the program if acting Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal adds conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain, as recommended last year by an advisory panel.

“Sixty to 65 percent of the population of New Jersey will qualify for medical cannabis. So think about it: Why do we need recreational cannabis?” Schidlovsky said. “Just think about it. If people will qualify for medical cannabis, why not do it legally under the expanded and improved regulations that the Department of Health is currently reviewing to enact?”

Bound Brook Borough Council President Abel Gomez said such an approach would undercut the potential economic boost legalization could provide.

“It almost sounds like I just heard Anheuser-Busch advocate that they should be the only alcohol producer, not the microbreweries, because they do it better than the little guys,” Gomez said.

Schidlovsky said he doesn’t oppose legalization but thinks it should be studied to get a sustainable industry right. He said that to meet the potential recreational market would take 750,000 pounds of cannabis and 55 acres of land to grow on.

The public officials at the seminar included some Assembly members, mayors and council members and a few uniformed police officers.

Aberdeen Mayor Fred Tagliarini said he supports home rule and state’s rights but that the federal government says marijuana is illegal – and that’s the problem in a lot of communities and for a lot of elected officials.

“You’re asking them to do an awful lot to break an oath of office and at the same time say New Jersey is different than other states,” Tagliarini said.

New Jersey Cannabusiness Association president Scott Rudder says elected officials swear they will uphold the Constitution and that New Jersey can regulate marijuana within the state under the 10th Amendment.

Shamong Mayor Mike Di Croce, an attorney, suggested that Gov. Phil Murphy put an administrative hold on all marijuana possession cases until the law is changed.

“Young people are being arrested in Burlington County for a minimal amount of pot. Sometimes police officers actually find something in the rug or in the pipe, and it’s a residue, right?” Di Croce said. “And their lives are essentially ruined.”

An Assembly committee plans a March 5 hearing on legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults. The head of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association says he expects a vote on the bill by the end of June.


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