There’s a Surprising Obstacle to Ending Marijuana Prohibition in New Jersey
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on, among other things, a promise to legalize marijuana in his first 100 days in office. That didn't happen. It may not happen at all this year, and state Sen. Ronald Rice (D) is one major reason why.
Marijuana legalization advocates led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Cumberland) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) filed a pair of bills this session, S 2702 and S 2703 that provide lawmakers a framework for legalization, but opposition from the likes of Rice has blunted forward momentum so far.
Rice represents part of Newark, a district more than half black, and is the head of the state's Legislative Black Caucus. He is also a major anti-marijuana legalization advocate, with an array of arguments from the depths of Reefer Madness.
He most recently made headlines last week with his hyperventilating warning that if pot is legalized, Garden Staters will be faced with the prospect of—gasp!—"sex toys and oils with marijuana," and it could be happening right in his face.
"If in fact we legalize recreational marijuana, right across the street from my office they’re going to put up stores," Rice told NJTV. "They want to call them dispensaries, but they’re going to be stores that do retail selling cupcakes with marijuana, candies with marijuana, sex toys and oils with marijuana, lipsticks with marijuana, all those kinds of products that kids can get and people can get."
It's not clear why Rice thinks "kids" will be able to get marijuana products. When marijuana is legalized, it is only ever legalized for adults—not kids.
He also made a muddled attempt to deploy the discredited gateway theory that marijuana use leads to hard drug use, arguing that, "When you legalize marijuana recreationally, the number of people who've never used any type of drugs goes up substantially in terms of drug use." Say what?
Oddly enough, Rice recognizes the devastating impact that racially biased marijuana law enforcement has on the state's minority communities—the New Jersey ACLU reported last year that between 2000 and 2013, black residents were arrested at a rate nearly three times that of whites, even though both groups used weed at similar rates—but says the answer is decriminalization, not legalization.
He has even filed a bill this year that would decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams, but that would also enable the state to force some marijuana users into drug treatment. And his logic in supporting decriminalization over legalization is something else.
"I still want to deter people from doing something that’s bad for them," Rice explained to Gothamist back in April. "If you get too high, you die from it. It kills you directly if it's too potent."
Of course, there is no known case of anyone dying from a marijuana overdose, but forget that for just a moment and ponder Rice's logic: Marijuana can kill you, so let's decriminalize it.
In that same Gothamist interview, Rice unleashed a Gish gallop of problems he claimed would be unleashed by legal (but not decriminalized?) marijuana: Babies born with THC in their brains, businesses desperate for workers who could pass drug tests, people cashing in food stamps to score weed, drug cartels getting in the legal pot businesses, an army of drug addicts as pot smokers escalate to harder drugs, and devastated inner cities, among other looming calamities.
Rice also took his anti-legalization views to Washington, D.C.—on April 20th of all days—along with Bishop Jethro James Jr. of Newark's Paradise Baptist Church and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy to join up with the pot prohibitionist Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) at a press conference to blunt legalization moves.
The senator was in typical form there, warning that people already go hungry to buy drugs and that those numbers will only increase if it's easier to access legal marijuana. Rice also raised the specter of lethal violence if white college students from outside Newark come into the city in search of drugs or if blacks from the city go to white suburban towns to buy legal weed.
"Somebody's going to get killed," he said.
Rice has been in the state Senate since 1986, has won reelection easily in his heavily Democratic district, and didn't even face a primary challenger this year. He may be progressive on some issues, but on other issues, he displays the same reactionary tendencies he has displayed around marijuana. He was one of only two Democrats in the Senate to vote against bills legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009 and 2012. It may be time for District 28 voters to start looking for a senator from this century.
This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.