When it comes to marijuana legalization, Gov. Murphy has promised the sky in terms of revenue for the state and social justice. In his State of the State address last week and in many other instances, Murphy has repeatedly stated that social justice is the main driver of his push for legalization.
But the reality is the governor is really after the tax revenue that supporters of legalization like to talk so much about. If the true purpose for legalization was about social justice, surely the current sticking point over the rate at which the state should tax the substance wouldn’t exist.
New Jersey isn’t the first state to hear big promises about budget-fixing tax revenue from marijuana legalization and should our lawmakers move to legalize, we surely won’t be the first state to be let down.
In 2014, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper projected the state would rake in $118 million in pot taxes the first year of legalization. In reality, it only brought in around $67 million…well short of the promised windfall. Currently, marijuana revenue accounts for only 0.78 percent of the overall budget.
In California, voters were sold the line that the state could collect upwards of $1 billion in revenue. The reality is the state has failed to bring in anywhere close to that mark — it fell 75 percent short of it through September. All this prompted outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown to say, “I have not counted on any revenue from marijuana. Who’s counting on the marijuana revenue? People said that to make it more plausible for voters.”
So what’s the issue? It appears the black market is nimbler than anyone thought. In fact, it's growing stronger. One in five marijuana users in the state continue to purchase the drug off the street as opposed to buying it from retail stores. The situation is so bad that foreign cartels and criminal gangs are turning whole neighborhoods into pot-growing operations and even growing the drug on national lands.
And yet Big Marijuana — whose components now include Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco — keep claiming they can end the illicit trade of the drug through “regulation.”
What makes our lawmakers think the New Jersey experiment will be any different?
The lesson here that New Jersey legislators must learn before rushing head first into legalizing marijuana is that this will not fix the problems with our budget shortfall. Not only will legalization fail to wash our state in cash, it will likely cost the state far more than it could ever bring in.
A study out of Colorado recently found that for every dollar of marijuana revenue, $4.50 must be spent to mitigate the damages it causes. More money must be spent to implement regulatory operations, shut down illegal growing operations, treat increased rates of Cannabis Use Disorder, and deal with large increases in stoned driving. On top of that, there is no telling how much will be lost in the workforce due to workplace absenteeism and injuries as well as lost productivity.
While on the topic of promises failing to materialize, a recent NBC report found that the vast promises of social justice that would come with the legalization of marijuana (as we have heard from many here in our state) have simply fallen short. T African-Americans in Colorado are three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than whites. And the same number of African-American adults were arrested for marijuana in Denver last year versus the year legalization was enacted.
The marijuana industry doesn’t care about increasing tax revenue. And it definitely doesn’t care about social justice. It only cares about one thing: profits.
Our lawmakers must pump the brakes on this reckless approach. Legalizing a drug much higher in THC now than in the past serves no one but the greedy pot executives and the politicians they enrich.
Stephen D. Reid is executive cirector of New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy (NJRAMP).