One of the more complex issues confronting the latest wave of states looking to legalize cannabis, including New Jersey, is how to incorporate social justice efforts into legalization legislation. To date, 33 states have implemented medical cannabis programs and 10 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use. That number will soon rise to 11, as Illinois just became the first state where the legislature passed a bill legalizing both the possession and sale of cannabis, a designation most believed would go to New Jersey or New York.
According to some analysts, the total U.S. cannabis market would be valued at about $28 billion (or more) if it were legalized today. For some, maybe most, this market potential alone is enough to justify legalizing cannabis, not just in New Jersey but throughout the country. For others, however, the undeniable financial benefits of legalizing cannabis, including the business opportunities and potential tax revenues, are not enough to convince them legalization is in the public interest, particularly in the current climate where social justice reform is claiming a lot of attention in the public discourse.
Social justice reforms aimed at redress for the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been negatively impacted by cannabis prohibition have become intricately intertwined with the cannabis legalization movement. While legalizing cannabis, by itself, will not ameliorate the social and economic fallout resulting from the number of arrests related to cannabis in recent years (approximately 24,000 New Jersey residents are arrested each year for possession of cannabis), correctly addressing the social justice component of cannabis legalization is an important focus of any proposed legalization initiative.
Many of the states that legalized cannabis without considering past convictions are now scrambling to pass legislation dealing with expungements and facing backlash for how the resources and financial benefits of the cannabis industry have excluded the communities most affected by the war on drugs.