Which state, if any, is likely to win the race? And how long could it take?
Evan Nison, executive director of NORML NJ, a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says Rhode Island could become the first state in the East, based on the progress it has made so far in the legislature. "We have a hurdle with the governor and they don't," he said.
Nison predicts New Jersey won't have legal pot sales for "likely five years down the road. We're getting more momentum than we've ever had, but change is slow," he said. "We're waiting for him to leave," Nison said of Christie.
In a town hall in Flemington last week, Christie, a Republican, told the crowd that he would not decriminalize or legalize marijuana, because it would be "the wrong message to send to children" and young adults. Legalization would allow the "state-sanctioned use of marijuana for people who do not have a legitimate need for it," he said, adding he supports marijuana use for medical ailments.
Jay Lassiter, a longtime marijuana legalization activist and a board member of Coalition for Medical Marijuana N.J., said it would be great if New Jersey could be first because it would give the state "an edge and bring a windfall to Atlantic City." He said that the novelty would help the "sad little Shore town" recover from its economically depressed state and ailing casino business.
When Colorado dispensaries opened Jan. 1, lines formed and tourism dollars and new tax revenues poured into the state coffers. Officials say the taxes will go toward education.
Lassiter concedes Christie could effectively block passage of any legalization bill in the next few years. "Our goal is not to win right now. Our goal is to bring up this long-overdue discussion. We lose, we lose, and then we win," the Cherry Hill activist said.
On Monday, New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) announced he was introducing a bill that would allow residents over 21 to buy up to one ounce of marijuana from a licensed dispensary and to grow up to six cannabis plants in a secure, enclosed area. He said the measure could generate $100 million annually in tax revenues and save the state another $100 million that is expended by treating the possession of the drug as a crime.
Years of debate
When asked whether Christie's stance makes the bill a futile exercise, he said Christie will not "be governor forever," and that it takes years to debate and pass such novel legislation.
As the author of the state's 2010 medical marijuana bill in the Senate, Scutari noted that it took five years to get that legislation approved.
New Jersey is one of 20 states that have medical marijuana laws that allow patients to purchase limited quantities of the drug with a doctor's approval. Delaware is among them, but Pennsylvania is not. Bills, however are pending in the Pennsylvania legislature that would legalize medical marijuana and that would also relax the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Would Scutari's legalization bill take as long as the medical marijuana bill? "This is a journey of a thousand steps. . . . This is an educational process," he said, adding that he still has to debate the issue with colleagues, collect votes, and iron out differences.
When asked if legalization would ignore moral issues, he said: "It's not about morals - we allow people to drink beer on the weekends."
State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer) has introduced a similar bill, but it calls for voters to decide. He said that he thinks Christie may be less inclined "to stand between the voters" by refusing to let them cast a ballot on whether they favor legalization.
Scutari disagrees, saying a ballot initiative would be more difficult because the state constitution requires legislative approval and the governor's approval before a question can go to the voters.
As a prosecutor in Linden, he said that he has been thinking about legalization "a long time," because he has seen how the war on drugs is a failed experiment that he says puts people in jail for possessing a drug that is no worse than an alcoholic beverage.
Society's changing views on marijuana and the example of Colorado, Scutari said, persuaded him to introduce the bill at this time. "People are ready now," he said. "Let's move forward and stop putting our heads in the sand."
Staff writers Andrew Seidman and Amy Worden contributed to this report.