The following editorial by Senator Robert Singer (R-30) was published by the Asbury Park Press on November 29, 2020:
New Jersey residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment to legalize the personal use of cannabis by adults.
While the legislation to establish a legal market and regulatory scheme for marijuana was expected to be a slam dunk after the ballot measure was approved by a 2-to-1 margin, disagreements over a slew of concerns have caused the process to stall.
Democrats in the Legislature are now squabbling over everything – how much to tax marijuana, how they will split the money, how best to expunge prior convictions, and even whether to lower penalties for “magic mushrooms.”
They’re fighting over adding more taxes on legal pot – in addition to the State and local sales taxes explicitly approved by voters – that could lead to tax rates of 20 to 40 percent or higher for consumers. Republicans have warned that an excessive tax burden could undermine the legal marketplace and lead to lower tax revenues than expected.
It seems the public’s hope for a quick, painless legalization process have gone up in smoke. Given this extra time, however, we should consider the public good that a responsible utilization of marijuana tax revenues could provide.
While Democrats are trying to direct virtually all the tax revenues resulting from legalization to a handful of urban centers they represent to address “social justice” concerns, I believe there are broader challenges that impact New Jerseyans in every community that must be addressed.
For example, overdose deaths, which have been rising precipitously for years, have soared during the pandemic. State officials reported an increase in fatalities of more than 20% in the first six weeks of the COVID outbreak.
The impact of addiction is real in every city, town, and neighborhood, and across all social boundaries, including race, gender, and economic status. Members of every subcategory can — and do — become hooked, and too many of them die.
That’s why I believe a portion of marijuana tax revenues should be dedicated to funding opioid and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs. This would save lives and help free individuals from addiction.
Similarly, there are other critical areas where these funds could provide a broader public benefit that also are experiencing significant spikes due to the pressures and stresses of the COVID pandemic.
Suicide awareness and prevention initiatives and mental health services are chronically underfunded, and demand for counseling and assistance has never been higher.
The Kaiser Family Foundation published an eye-opening report recently, noting that “the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have taken a toll on mental health for many people, with over 30% of adults in the U.S. now reporting symptoms consistent with an anxiety and/or depressive disorder.”
The foundation said 20% report needing, but not receiving, mental health counseling or therapy.
The tensions exerted by the pandemic — including job loss and instability, financial distress, family disruption related to educational changes and online instruction, and loneliness and isolation for those who live alone — have been damaging to the psyche of even the most robust New Jerseyans.
It is estimated that in the Garden State, almost one of five adults suffer from mental illness. For many, the need for counseling or therapy is unmet due to a lack of resources. Individuals who need help are not being evaluated, and those who have diagnoses struggle to find care.
Things will only get worse this holiday season as the virus interferes with the usual gatherings of family and friends. For many, joy and excitement are being replaced by anxiety and depression.
We can do better. An influx of funding from legal cannabis transactions could go a long way to supporting these important needs which will continue long after the coronavirus has passed.
Unfortunately, Democrats in Trenton continue to fight among themselves with the intent of funneling much of the pot tax revenue to their own towns and interests, while ignoring statewide needs such as these.
The shared benefits of the tax revenue windfall that was promised to New Jerseyans as a result of legalization will likely not be realized in many places. Communities across New Jersey will be stuck with substantial increased costs related to legalized marijuana oversight and enforcement with little State support, leading to higher bills for many property taxpayers.
If Trenton doesn’t start thinking about the good of the entire state, they’ll have done something unfathomable. They’ll be the first people in history to make selling pot a money losing venture.
The Legislature has one shot to get legalizing marijuana right, and to do so in a way that benefits every New Jersey resident and every community.
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