Former mayor weighs in on marijuana legalization

Former Mayor Wayne Smith weighed in on the debate about the Marijuana Legalization Act at the Irvington Joint Block Association Coalition’s annual Christmas and Kwanzaa Brunch at Mt. Herman Church.

IRVINGTON, NJ — FoFormer Mayor Wayne Smith weighed in on the debate about the Marijuana Legalization Act in the wake of state legislators’ admission that the bill is unlikely to pass this year, at the Irvington Joint Block Association Coalition’s annual Christmas and Kwanzaa Brunch at Mt. Herman Church on Saturday, Dec. 15.

Dozens of New Jersey towns have already passed laws to ban marijuana sales, manufacturing, farming and other uses within their borders.

On Monday, Nov. 26, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly majorities voted to move ahead with the Marijuana Legalization Act legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, to make marijuana use legal for adults age 21 and older.

The legislation proposes to legalize possession and personal use of marijuana for persons age 21 and older and create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure. The state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the assembly Appropriation Committee voted to advance the legislation to a full vote by the entire state Legislature after a five-hour debate Monday, Nov. 26.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the Marijuana Legalization Act, while the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 7-3 to advance the bill.

Despite those votes, it’s still not clear when the full Legislature will vote on the Marijuana Legalization Act. Most, but not all, Democrats on the Assembly and Senate Budget and Appropriations committees supported the legislation.

Smith said it’s no surprise there is so much debate regarding legalization. He said it would be better to decriminalize it before legalizing it, and he’s not surprised some municipalities are adopting a “Not in my backyard” attitude about the issue.

“I think they should move very slowly and very judiciously,” said Smith on Saturday, Dec. 15. “I went to the first hearing that Sen. (Ron) Rice’s Black Caucus had and testified. I chair the board of a youth organization called International Youth Organization and we deal with young people in the youth corps and, while marijuana is illegal, we still have a challenge with young people smoking, we still have a challenge with young people drinking and we still have a challenge with young people with tobacco consumption. … We have to, in the sight of potential legalization, spend an extra amount of time coaching our young people to stay away from things that may be a detriment to their bodies.”

“Here’s some of the issues I raised at the hearing: I live in an urban city. Will the consumption of marijuana affect my auto insurance rates and, at the same time, are employers going to change their policies about consumption of marijuana? So I’m trying to get young people jobs that have difficulties getting jobs and one of the challenges is they can’t pass a drug test. So there’s been no discussion about where employers are going in this scenario, so we have a lot of work to do,” Smith continued. “I’m glad to see that the fast track train has slowed down. So the first step I suggested is decriminalizing. No young person should have his life ruined because he had a joint in his pocket; however, that should be the first thing. That should be an easy step to decriminalize, so do that first and then work out all these myriad issues that you have to work out on this pathway to legalization.”

Former Irvington NAACP President and current Rotary Club President Merrick Harris said he understands why many municipalities in the state want to disallow the production, sale and distribution of marijuana within their borders.

“As far as the marijuana issue in the town, I am against it. I don’t think it’s really going to do anything for the community. It’s going to make certain people richer,” said Harris at the holiday event. “The marijuana, where it’s being sold, it’s going to wind up being like it was in the past, where you go to a community and you see sneakers hanging up on the phone line, because that’s the area where you can get your drugs and whatnot. It just made the community bad and I think that even having a storefront that sells marijuana is going to be a blot for that community.”

“I’m not sure who they are but most likely I think they’re more affluent,” said Harris, referring to the towns that have already banned marijuana sales. “More affluent communities are banning it, so what’s going to happen, it’s going to wind up falling on the backs of Irvington, Newark and most of the urban inner cities and it’s going to cause people to influx into those neighborhoods, in order to buy the drugs.”

Smith said such issues are why he favors decriminalizing marijuana prior to legalizing it.

“If it does become legal, there are those advocates on that side who say, ‘Who is going to participate in the business side of it, and how do you create an equitable environment so that African-Americans and Latinos and women, if they’re going to be in that marketplace, have a fair crack at it?’ We have not licked the construction industry, we have not licked all the other industries, in terms of a major share in that environment. We are still a work in progress. This is a new industry. Then the debate becomes, how much is it taxed? So there’s a lot of stuff that has to be settled.”