'Legal' marijuana has racial, class gap in N.J. | Opinion

There is no gentle way to say it: The white community enjoys smoking marijuana, and it has become socially acceptable in that community to do so. 

Just look at the states where the recreational use of cannabis is now legal. Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Maine and Washington State are not known for their large black populations. Now, I am not saying that black and brown people do not partake, since they do, and they often end up in jail for it. 

For the white majority, marijuana cultivation and sales are very different experience. It can be extremely rewarding financially and has the potential to be the industry behind the next group of American multimillionaires. However, that is only if you already have lots of money and strong political connections, as the licensing process to sell recreational marijuana, where it is legal, is extremely expensive. Most small entrepreneurs do not have access to the capital needed to  get through the application process, much less the hard business costs.

Right now there are 11 recreational marijuana bills pending in the New Jersey Legislature. Several are very interesting and provide a snapshot of what the marijuana business may ultimately look like in our state.

Assembly Bill 2068 would legalize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for those 21 years old and above. For entrepreneurs, the bill would allow the retail sale of marijuana, while cultivating, processing storing, repackaging and delivery would be decriminalized. The state anticipates a tax bonanza if these transactions were made legal.

Then there is A3942, also known as the "Providing Opportunities for Tomorrow in Atlantic City Act." This bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), would place a question on the ballot to authorize Atlantic City to legalize the commercial growth, sale, possession, consumption and taxation of marijuana within the city limits. This is similar to what was enacted in Washington, D.C. The tax rate would be 20 percent, which is a pretty nice cut for the state. 

Marijuana has the potential to bring in more tax revenue than any other industry in New Jersey. So, A3942 has the potential to help stabilize Atlantic City's finances over time while creating wealth for a lot of people. I firmly believe New Jersey entrepreneurs should be included. 

Such inclusion is not happening in the state's existing medical marijuana program. The case of the Harmony Foundation is a prime example. The Harmony Foundation is set to open the Garden State's sixth marijuana dispensary in Secaucus by year's end. But its license application got off to a revealing, precarious start Harmony once beat out 19 others for a grower's permit. 

The process includes a background check on the organization's board of directors. Such investigation reportedly found that most of Harmony's directors were Russian business executives. The board then underwent a purge, with Russian citizens replaced by U.S. citizens. Also, new principals and investors were brought in. 

Here is a documented case where a growing/dispensing facility in our state, potentially a big money maker, was being controlled by business people with ties to a nation at odds with our own. How could a company like this, even after recruiting a new board of directors, be granted a license?  

Let me answer my own question: Harmony was granted a license because the company had the money and, in a capitalistic society, money unfortunately rules.

There is one more telling detail in the "Providing Opportunities for Tomorrow in Atlantic City Act." This bill would also increase the penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana purchased in A.C. to include a mandatory one-year license suspension for a first offense. 

Now, put this in perspective. The state may introduce recreational marijuana by bringing it to Atlantic City first, and reap an expected financial windfall. Then private citizens will be penalized severely for buying this A.C. marijuana and driving a motor vehicle. 

Arrest statistics show that people of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for marijuana use. There is nothing I have seen or heard that indicates arrest/ incarceration statistics would be any different if A3942 becomes law.

I just don't see casino guests getting arrested regularly for any kind of marijuana use. If you want to kill a casino or resort town like Atlantic City, a good start would be to start locking up out-of-town visitors and in-state gamblers.

So, just who does that leave to be subject to the harsh penalties?

Milton W. Hinton Jr. is director of equal opportunity for the Gloucester County government. He is past president of the Gloucester County Branch NAACP. His column states his personal views, not those of any organization or agency.

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