NJ marijuana legalization: Will legal weed put money in your pocket?

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That’s the view of various people involved in the legalization debate, from prosecutors to police to a state senator sponsoring legal weed legislation.

“They’re going to reallocate their own resources to what they think is appropriate,” Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, said of police departments and prosecutor’s offices. “Perhaps police will be able to spend more time investigating burglaries and things of that sort without having to send six officers to stop a car, close a street, get a dog, for this much marijuana.”

While the discussion of tax revenue from legal weed and how it would be divided has generated much discussion, talk about the supposed weed dividend has gained little notice.

“I just don’t think it’s been contemplated yet,” said Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the League of Municipalities.

A shifting of resources, not a cost savings, would likely occur, he said. For more on marijuana arrests, scroll up to the video at the top of this page.

Both Scutari and Cerra said that the regulatory body that would be created to oversee the new industry could be tasked with exploring the shift in resources or any cost savings from legalization.

$127 million estimate

Twelve lines down in the 117-page marijuana legalization bill sponsored by Scutari in June sits an estimate on the cost New Jersey spends each year on enforcement of marijuana possession laws.

The $127 million figure that’s been pushed by advocates of legalization as cost savings comes from an 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report.

Using government databases of criminal justice expenditures, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and Census data, the ACLU report provided three estimates of the cost of weed possession arrests for each state: one low, one middle and one high. Those figures are based on 2010 statistics.

For New Jersey, the $127 million was the middle estimate for the cost of policing, judiciary and corrections. The national formula used by the ACLU, however, did not account for specific factors unique to each state.

The report sets $17 million for incarceration costs in New Jersey, but people arrested for marijuana possession in the Garden State do not ordinarily get locked up for that charge, according to municipal prosecutors and police.

The ACLU’s figures also are not offset by fines and court costs that defendants pay.

The ACLU of New Jersey updated that estimate in a 2017 report to $143 million, but did not break it down further or provide other estimates.

Under the heading of Cost Savings, the report also mentioned that New Jersey spent more than $1 billion in the past decade enforcing marijuana possession laws.

“Enforcement of our marijuana possession laws is a tremendous drain on our state resources,” the report read.

Colorado’s experience

Legal recreational weed first went on sale in Colorado nearly five years ago. And the state’s experiences with legalization have been closely followed.

Chris Halsor, a former prosecutor in Colorado who now lectures on legalization and law enforcement, said he doubts New Jersey would see a weed dividend.

“I would be willing to say not many (police departments) are all of a sudden scaling down because they no longer have to deal with marijuana,” he said. “The way marijuana (legalization advocates) sell it is that now law enforcement is going to be freed up to solve real crime.

“That assumes that law enforcement wasn’t doing its job when it comes to major crime and that marijuana related issues will go away,” Halsor said, adding that has not been the case in Colorado. “They end up having to exert their resources concerning marijuana just in different ways.”

Halsor said although major crime involving marijuana is “way down,” police in Colorado saw an uptick in nuisance complaints about marijuana.

“When you have burned marijuana you’re going to have neighbors complaining,” he said.

‘Slew of witnesses’

Jon-Henry Barr, a municipal prosecutor in Clark Township in Union County, said he’s surprised the ACLU estimates aren’t much higher.

It’s rare for a pot arrest to involve only one officer, he said.

“Almost always there’s backup,” he said Barr, the former president of the New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association, who is in favor of legalization.

He recalled a municipal court case in which a defendant moved to suppress evidence of the seized marijuana.

The trial took days and involved a “slew of witnesses,” many of them police and other public employees paid on overtime, just to prove chain of custody of the seized marijuana from the police headquarters to the testing lab and back.

“It’s an enormous expenditure of taxpayers’ resources,” he said.

If there is any freeing of resources, Barr thinks it should go toward dealing with the opioid epidemic, possibly by steering people addicted to the drug into treatment,

More work

John Zebrowski, police chief in Sayreville and the vice president of the New Jersey Chiefs of Police Association, sees nothing but more work with legalization.

“I see a cost-shifting, not a cost savings,” said Zebrowski, a critic of legalization. “As far as enforcement goes there’s going to be more people on the roads that are going to be impaired.”

Because detecting marijuana use is far less certain that determining blood-alcohol levels, many of those cases would be disputed, he said.

“I believe you’re going to see a greater number of cases coming back to municipal court at more expense,” he said.

In 2016, 25 percent of the 1,600 arrests made by Wall Township police officers were for marijuana possession.

Wall Deputy Mayor Kevin Orender, a former New York City narcotics detective, sees no benefit flowing to taxpayers.

“I’m just thinking about the constant complaints we’re going to get,” he said. “If the people next door are having a party next to the 85-year-old couple who go to church every Sunday — what are they going to say?”

If there is more time for officers, he would like to see that time go toward “quality community policing” and education, especially regarding drug use.

While taxpayers might not experience any direct cost savings from recreational marijuana legalization, weed users could see a potential savings — in the lack of an arrest. Court costs, fines and lawyers’ fees to for a weed possession charge can now top $1,200.

Multiply that by the number of pot possession arrests in 2016: More than $38 million.

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