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Op-Ed: Can We Have Recreational Marijuana Dispensaries, Please?

With good local ordinances, there’s no reason adult access to the drug can’t be made easy, safe, and a raiser of revenue for New Jersey

Colleen Markley
Colleen Markley

You’ll have heard already that New Jersey is planning to legalize recreational marijuana. I think that’s a great idea — and not because I’m a pothead. I can proudly tell my children (and sheepishly admit to my friends) that I have never taken a drug in violation of any state law. I am 43, and a dorky rule follower.

Also, I have trust issues: I can’t even find a dry cleaner that I like; how am I going to ingest a drug when I don’t know who grew it or what’s really in it? I buy organic apples, use that weird blue-tinted-but-won’t-give-you-cancer sunscreen, wear orthotic shoes for my plantar fasciitis and get my milk directly from an Amish farmer. I make safe and healthy buying choices for myself and my family. I buy from reputable sources, like to be a locavore as much as possible, and am not going to trust your cousin’s roommate’s supplier. I also don’t eat unwrapped mints out of the bowl by the register at the diner. Who knows where that’s been and who’s put their hand in it?

But creating an open and safe (and TAXED — have you heard about how much New Jersey needs some cash?) marketplace for marijuana? Which, by the way, has fewer negative impacts on health than alcohol and tobacco? I like this plan for several reasons. Let me tell you why.

We need secure — and boring — regulations

Drugs available on the U.S. market are safe. We’ve had to add tamper-resistant packaging along the way, but when I open a bottle of Advil I know that each pill has the exact same amount of ibuprofen as the one next to it. Alcohol bottles list the percentage in each bottle. The supply of alcohol is regulated, it’s predictable, it’s stable. And it keeps things dependable. This is what they’ve done with marijuana in other states — every package is tested, regulated, checked. That marijuana chocolate bar? Every single square has the exact same amount of THC as the next. No surprises. No chance of drugs being laced with something you weren’t counting on (like K2 synthetics, which are anywhere from two to 100 times more potent than THC, the “natural” drug in marijuana). It’s labeled, it’s regulated, it’s safe for public consumption. Safe. Boring. Exactly what my boring 40-something self, and thousands like me, are looking for.

Dispensaries are safe

I don’t know if you’ve ever visited a dispensary for recreational marijuana, but they are actually pretty nice. The one I visited (purely for educational purposes, of course) in Denver had hardwood floors, soothing lighting, and lots of glass and open space. It looked like an Apple store, except instead of someone helping you at the Genius Bar you have a “budtender.”

Dispensaries hire security guards to let people in and check IDs. They also make sure no one under the age of 25 enters the store, which I like, because drugs for young people are a bad plan. They can permanently change their neural pathways, so I’m a big fan of prohibiting access to those under 25.

In the dispensary I visited, the security guard only let in a few customers at a time, so you had a one-to-one ratio for customers to budtenders. It makes for quite a lovely shopping experience, and allows the experts help you figure out what strain of marijuana you want — something to help you chill, something to help you feel more energy, etc. If you’ve had a bad experience in the past with THC, they can recommend other products to help alleviate that paranoia stuff so you don’t think anyone is chasing you and finding you using THC when you are visiting a state where it’s legal. Not that I know anyone that happened to, of course. Budtenders are experts in their field, like sommeliers of marijuana. Experts are good. Especially for those of us who don’t have a lot of experience in this area.

Importance of personal freedoms

I believe in local government freedoms, open mindedness, and personal choice. Marijuana is a safe drug when used responsibly. We should allow our adult citizens to make their own choices. But I also get how hard it is for residents to come forward and be vocal about this support.

It’s not an easy issue to discuss, and many people are embarrassed or concerned they will be labeled as druggies or potheads. The “Just say no” campaign was a large part of my upbringing and culture as a kid. Saying “yes, please, for safe access to safe drugs with safeguards and lots of local revenue” does not sound as catchy.

Alcohol is allowed with regulations. Tobacco is allowed with regulations. Marijuana should be the same. If you don’t want to use it, that’s totally fine. But there are lots of responsible adults who would like to use it responsibly in the privacy of their own homes.

I’m going to be consistent on the same personal freedoms and right to privacy on this one as some other hot topics. You want a hunting rifle? That’s your personal choice. Awesome. Keep it in your house, safe and locked up. I will do the same with my marijuana. No joke. They even have safes for this stuff.

Taxes, taxes, taxes = good revenue stream

Prohibition wasn’t repealed just because people were tired of gangsters bootlegging, or worried about bathtub gin-poisonings, or because they decided that whole temperance movement about the sins of alcohol was no longer worth it. The federal government thought it was a good idea to repeal Prohibition because it wanted a tax-revenue stream after the Great Depression. This was done as well during the recent Great Recession when many states once again raised alcohol taxes because they simply needed the revenue.

If every county in the U.S. can impose a tax on hotel rooms to generate revenue, I’m thinking my small town would do well to impose a tax to fund our new school renovation, library addition, and snow removal. The Farmer’s Almanac is calling for a doozy of a winter. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the snow removal paid for, while we all hang out cozy by the fire with some delicious chocolate?

NJ.com, reporting in June on the inequity of the taxes New Jersey sends to our federal government versus what we get back in services, noted that “…no state does that more than New Jersey: For every dollar you paid in federal taxes in 2015, you got back just 74 cents.” Our federal investment is a losing proposition, and our roads, tunnels, and bridges are suffering for it.

Taking back the state’s right to sell marijuana makes financial sense and would allow us to make up for not only that revenue shortfall, but also the federal restrictions on what we in New Jersey can deduct for our property taxes.

Taxes levied on recreational marijuana could help fund the New Jersey state pension plan, fix our infrastructure, reduce property taxes, and line the rainy-day fund for the next hundred-year storm (which now seem to occur every two to three years). Colorado raised nearly double in taxes from marijuana sales than alcohol, and while other states have had some learning curves along the way, we in New Jersey are in the enviable position of being able to learn from their missteps.

There’s also the money New Jersey will be able to save by decriminalizing marijuana. Do you know how much it takes to enforce federal law on this? Over $100 million per year. No joke. The feds are annoying me on this.

Commonsense rules

I do believe there should be ordinances to safeguard our public interests. Towns should create local ordinances against public consumption/smoking/use of marijuana so that it is only done in private homes, not out in parks or public areas. Businesses should enforce a strict adherence to the 25 and over age limit, and they should lose their license for infractions. Period.

I also think it’d be a wise idea to prohibit marketing of marijuana. Remember those pesky big tobacco companies? With their ads targeting kids? We don’t need that. Trust us. If we want to find the marijuana dispensary, we will find it. I don’t need or want your billboards on the turnpike. Zero advertising to anyone, including our kids.

No need to be afraid

Will my small town allow for dispensaries? I hope so. I look forward to a rational and calm discussion of the issue, using our values and ethics and common decency to discuss it. The part that makes me roll my eyes is when elected officials say things like, “That scares me and I hope that it scares the residents” in our town. Yes. That is a direct quote. To that I say, “um, no.”

Let’s not govern with fear. That’s part of a history that I do not like. Elected officials and people in power should not try to encourage fear in their electorate. It’s not an ethical way to govern or lead the public.

Here’s a list of things that the government has been afraid of in the past: Native Americans, emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage, voting rights for African-Americans, alcohol, desegregated schools, civil rights, equal rights, people who are well-informed to make their own decisions.

We don’t need to be "afraid" of what marijuana legalization might do. We need to make sure it does what we want it to do. Hysteria and prohibition have no place in 2018.

Colleen Markley is a freelance writer living in Chatham. She writes a blog that takes a comedic and thoughtful look at life. A graduate of Boston University, she studied screenwriting for film and television, finished her first novel last year and is working on her second. She is the recipient of the Boston University Screenwriting Achievement Award, as well as the Blue Chip Award from the College of Communication. Colleen previously worked at Thirteen/WNET public television station in New York City.

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