State Sen. Nicholas Scutari announced his plan Monday, acknowledging that opposition from Gov. Chris Christie could seriously hinder it but pointing out, "He's not going to be governor forever."
Scutari, a Democrat, said allowing adults to legally buy marijuana to use recreationally would curb the drug sales-fueled crime that grips several New Jersey cities and reduce the number of people who get criminal records for pot possession. He also said regulators could ensure the safety of the pot people buy legally.
Part of his argument is also fiscal: It would save, he said, more than $100 million annually if police and courts didn't have to deal with marijuana as a crime. It also would bring more money into the state coffers through a 7 percent sales tax, he said. He did not know how much money legalization would generate but said he expects it to be more than $100 million annually.
Under Scutari's plan, which also is being introduced in the Assembly, 70 percent of the state's tax revenue from pot would go to a transportation fund. State officials have been wrestling with how to pay for infrastructure upgrades.
"As we've seen, trying to get a gasoline tax enacted in this state looks to be an even tougher measure," Scuatari said.
Twenty percent of the tax revenue would be earmarked for drug enforcement and demand reduction, and 10 percent would go toward women's health.
He said local governments would be able to further regulate - or ban - legal pot sales. But he said he's considering giving towns the ability to impose their own taxes on marijuana as a way to encourage them to allow it.
Scutari, a municipal prosecutor in Linden who said he has never used marijuana, said he does not expect his bill to be adopted quickly. He said it will get a public hearing within months if it is referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
Marijuana legalization has picked up momentum across the country since both Colorado and Washington state voters last year approved constitutional amendments to allow adults to use pot. Seventeen other states have legislation pending, according to tracking by the Marijuana Policy Project.
New Jersey has had a medical marijuana program running since 2012, but the state's regulations are perhaps the most restrictive of those in any state that allows pot for patients.
Pro-pot activists have been protesting Gov. Chris Christie at his public events lately, and the governor has reaffirmed his opposition to allowing any adult to use marijuana. He addressed the issue at a town hall meeting this month in Flemington
"Here is what I will not do - I will not decriminalize marijuana, I will not permit recreational use and I will not legalize marijuana because I think it's is the wrong message to send to the children in this state and to young adults," Christie said.
He said he wants chronically ill patients who have a medical need for marijuana to have access to the drug, "but I do not want, and I will not permit it on my watch, to morph into state-sanctioned use of marijuana by people who do not have a legitimate medical need."
Associated Press reporter Angela Delli Santi in Flemington contributed to this report.
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