Why you should care

Democrats and civil rights groups are divided over whether to support plans to legalize marijuana.  

The pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in Bishop Jethro James’ church office speak to a commitment to the causes of Black Americans. Snapshots of him grinning alongside presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton advertise his close ties to the Democratic Party.

But on a brewing racial justice issue in his home state of New Jersey, the Rev. James has broken with civil rights groups and Democratic leaders. The issue is legalizing marijuana. Governor Phil Murphy wants to legalize adult use to remedy years of racially uneven enforcement of drug offenses, and raise tax revenues. His push has run into resistance from allies such as James, who says the policy would instead keep poorer Blacks down.

“This is just another lynching of the African-American community. This is worse than Jim Crow,” he says.

On this one he’s [Murphy’s] wrong.

Ronald Rice, state senator

Such internal dissension has slowed a juggernaut of pot legalization as it rolls across North America into New Jersey, a state of 9 million people. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs banker, had pledged as a candidate to sign a cannabis bill within 100 days of taking office. He was sworn in four months ago.

With Murphy in power, Democrats control the executive and legislative branches for the first time in eight years. He is supported in his marijuana push by state affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP. But “there’s a long road in front of us” before a bill gets passed, says Wayne Dibofsky, chief of staff to assemblyman Joe Danielsen, who chairs a key committee considering the legislation.

One reason is distrust from liberal allies. Senator Ronald Rice, a senior Democrat who chairs the state Legislative Black Caucus, warns that authorizing marijuana sales will spur more people to use it. In Colorado, a pioneer in recreational legalization, the share of residents ages 18-25 who used marijuana in the previous month was 32 percent in 2015–16, up 5 percentage points from before passage in 2011, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Rice says social justice could be achieved simply by ending criminal penalties for holding small amounts of weed, rather than legalizing an entire industry, and has sponsored an alternative bill to codify that view.

“I don’t want to beat up on the governor, because I support him. But on this one he’s wrong,” Rice says.

He says groups backed by billionaire George Soros — typically cast as a liberal benefactor and a conservative bogeyman — were “spreading propaganda” in favor of legalization. Drug Policy Alliance, where Soros is a board member, advocates for legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana in the state.

By Rice’s count there are not enough votes to pass a legalization bill. But he says fellow lawmakers are getting their arms twisted to support it. Murphy’s budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for $80 million in marijuana tax revenue, creating an incentive to cement a deal beforehand.

Race has been central to the debate over legalization. As Murphy has noted, Blacks are arrested at three times the rate of whites for marijuana despite similar rates of use. Pot remains illegal under federal law, with states operating in the shadow of a potential U.S. crackdown.

“New Jersey has the largest Black-white incarceration gap in the nation, and legalizing marijuana is critical to reducing that disparity,” a spokeswoman for the governor said in response to queries. “This is about doing what is right and just, and addressing the structural racism in our criminal justice system.”

James, senior pastor of Newark’s Paradise Baptist Church and president of the Newark/North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen, disagrees. While sitting next to an NAACP official at a recent public hearing chaired by Rice, he says he was “shocked” by the storied civil rights group’s stance. If more people were to consume legal weed, the prevalence of workplace drug tests means they would struggle to find a job, he says. “They will not be employable anywhere.”

James notes the state’s municipalities, 565 in all, would be able to outlaw marijuana shops inside their borders, leaving them to open up in poorer towns that need the business. “Put it in the ’hood and let the ghetto have it and kill their children, kill their opportunity,” he testified at the public hearing, alluding to the social costs of drug use. Murphy’s home county of Monmouth, a place of horse farms and beaches, has passed a resolution opposing legalization.

Lifting pot prohibition would hand a lucrative prize to an aggressively expanding industry. New Jersey is an easy ride from the states of New York and Connecticut, where recreational pot is also banned. Taxing sales could help patch a fiscal hole for New Jersey, which struggles with chronically underfunded public pension plans and low fund reserves, according to Moody’s. Colorado, a state of 5.6 million people, took in $247.4 million in marijuana tax and fee revenue last year.

In New Jersey, advocates such as Drug Policy Alliance have recommended that part of the tax revenue from legal sales be invested back into neighborhoods where the war on drugs took its heaviest toll. At the hearing, the Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the town of Woodbury, said legalization should entail “reparations” in the form of drug treatment and jobs programs.

The state has a dubious history of raising new taxes on industries once controlled by the underworld. In 1969, voters approved a lottery sold as a curb on Mafia numbers rackets. Proceeds from what former state senator William Musto called the “happy tax” were dedicated to education and medical institutions.

Last year New Jersey instead committed all lottery revenue, $1 billion a year, to state employee pension obligations.

In 1976, state voters legalized casino gambling in the beach resort of Atlantic City, aiming to raise revenue and restore the city as a tourist draw. State tax revenue from casinos peaked at $500 million before collapsing due to the housing crisis and out-of-state competition. Last year tax revenues from casinos, combined with internet gambling launched in 2013, amounted to only $267 million.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a case brought by New Jersey and allowed sports betting, another new vein of taxes from an industry long dominated by illegal bookmaking.

“Unless it’s constitutionally dedicated money, they’re going to use it” for general expenses, Rice says. “That’s the history of New Jersey.”

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By Gregory Meyer

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