New Jersey's black lawmakers, who may decide whether marijuana becomes legal in the state, are hearing a dystopian vision of a society in which babies are exposed to pot smoke, teenagers munch on marijuana-laced foods in school cafeterias, and the leaf replaces tomatoes and blueberries as a symbol of Garden State agriculture.
With 19 members, all of them Democrats, the Legislative Black Caucus is taking on a high-profile role as lawmakers consider whether to make New Jersey the second state to legalize adult use of marijuana through legislation rather than a voter referendum.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy supports the idea.
Some black lawmakers are pushing back against Murphy's argument that legal marijuana would reduce disparities in drug-related arrests among white and non-white populations while freeing up police and prosecutors for more serious crimes. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has said he plans to present Murphy with a legalization bill early in the governor's term.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, has taken a more skeptical position. With two full legalization bills already pending in the Legislature, the Assembly's Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue March 5.
Marijuana businesses and their lobbyists have been descending on Trenton to argue their case. A forum for elected officials sponsored by the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association attracted some 400 people.
Led by Sen. Ronald Rice, a former Newark police detective who opposes legal marijuana, the Legislative Black Caucus has taken a skeptical view of the proposal. During a three-hour hearing in Jersey City — the first of three public forums the caucus is hosting on marijuana — only two of the 17 people who testified to the caucus favored the concept of legal marijuana.
The others outlined a dark future of young and old marijuana users being injured on the job, barred from employment and progressing to harder drugs, while non-users fear driving among stoned motorists and even taking their children on neighborhood strolls in a haze of pot smoke.
"It will devastate the African-American community," Bishop Jethro James of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark told lawmakers at the first Legislative Black Caucus hearing on marijuana, held Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Jersey City. "It will devastate any chance of our children having a future."
Flemington attorney David Evans, a former public defender in Newark, said legal marijuana would be responsible for everything from mental illnesses to school cafeterias that reek of weed.
"Is legalizing marijuana going to improve the spiritual health of the people of New Jersey?" Evans asked. "I don't think so."
Eight states, beginning with Colorado and Washington in 2014, allow no-questions-asked marijuana use among adults, while sales in Vermont are due to begin later this year.
During the Jersey City hearing, anti-marijuana sentiment ran so thick that Rice admitted that the testimony appeared to be one-sided, though not by design, and one of the two pro-legalization speakers complained that the group appeared to be under the influence of "Reefer Madness."
"New Jersey may not say yes today, may not say yes tomorrow, but you can best believe it's going to come eventually," said Virgil Grant, who heads a cannabis trade association in Los Angeles, where marijuana has been legal for medical use since 1996 and for general adult use since the beginning of this year.
"The question is: How do you want it to look in your town? Those are the questions you need to have, not the question of whether you don't want it."
With most Republican lawmakers opposed to legalizing marijuana, the fate of the drug in New Jersey may rest with African-American lawmakers, who account for 19 of the 76 Democrats in the Assembly and Senate.
Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, who attended the Jersey City hearing, said afterward that she was struck by testimony about children smelling marijuana smoke while walking in Colorado neighborhoods and being exposed to the drug through pot-laced candy.
"I believe this hearing opened up all of our minds and introduced new issues," said McKnight, who said she remains undecided about whether New Jersey should allow marijuana sales and use.
Rice, who organized the three Legislative Black Caucus forums on marijuana with his staff, consulted a Virginia-based anti-legalization nonprofit, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which helped provide speakers. Rice said he's not pushing an anti-legalization message to his members so much as apprising them of arguments on both sides, even though his own position is clear. He advocates lifting criminal penalties for people caught with small amounts of marijuana, while keeping laws against growing and selling the drug.