"The benefits of the [legalization] program will be far and wide," Scutari, the Judiciary Committee chairman, predicted during a conference call with reporters Friday. He is calling for a marijuana industry that would be taxed, which he said would generate money for the state that can be used for education, infrastructure, and other needs.
Scutari said he was in the early stages of drafting a bill and had no details yet.
He said legalization would also end a war on drugs that has ruined the lives of numerous young people. They are arrested and then have a record for possessing a small amount of marijuana despite evidence the substance is less harmful than alcohol, he said. These laws also have disproportionately affected minorities and support the underground market and drug lords, he said.
"We have spent millions of dollars on enforcement" of marijuana laws, but the drug should be regulated the way alcohol is, he said.
This week, President Obama said in an interview with the New Yorker that he did not view marijuana as more dangerous than alcohol and likened it to a vice such as cigarettes. His remarks reignited a debate over the drug that is getting traction across the nation.
Scutari said he realized Gov. Christie was likely to veto the bill. But he said it was time to start gathering support that societal views are changing. He said he would have to persuade colleagues in the Legislature and educate them.
"It's the opening of a dialogue on a controversial issue," he said, adding that he had long favored this approach. He said many police officers and prosecutors privately support legalization.
In an e-mail response, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said: "The governor has stated several times publicly that he does not favor legalization of marijuana. That remains the case. . . . He did sign the bill expanding the state's medical marijuana law to ease access for sick children."
In August, Christie signed a bill allowing edible marijuana to be sold to sick children who qualify for the drug. The parents of children with a life-threatening seizure disorder had lobbied for the bill, saying the medical marijuana law permitted only the smokable variety.
But when a reciprocity bill was introduced in December to allow such children to obtain a particular strain of marijuana they need from an out-of-state dispensary that offers it, Christie warned he would veto it.
"I am done expanding the medical marijuana program, under any circumstances," he said. "I'm not going to continue to expand it because what they [medical marijuana advocates] want is legalization, and they're not going to get legalization from this governor."
Scutari said he believed the medical marijuana program is broken because dying patients are having difficulty obtaining the drug they need. But he said he would focus his attention on legalization because that would help more people, including sick patients who need the drug.
Scutari said he would point to the example of Colorado, which he said had created an industry that is boosting state revenue, increasing jobs, and experiencing few problems.