TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A New Jersey lawmaker introduced legislation Monday to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana.
As CBS2's Meg Baker reported, a state senator has introduced new legislation that would take the product out of the hands of street criminals, and put dollars into the hands of taxpayers.
Democratic State Sen. Nicholas Scutari said the national trend is toward legalization and that it could be a big economic boost to New Jersey.
"I think we need to change the entire ballgame and legalize it, regulate and tax it, so we can ensure the safety of our citizens, as well as garner the tax benefit," Scutari said.
If approved, the bill would make New Jersey the first state on the East Coast to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
The New Jersey Cannabusiness Association says it is "excited about the jobs and opportunities this legislation will bring to New Jersey."
During last year's election, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada approved marijuana legalization, while four others — Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota — voted to establish medical marijuana programs.
Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the White House Commission to Combat Drug Addiction, is against the plan.
Last November, Christie argued that approving marijuana would clear the way for cocaine and heroin legalization, which has not been proposed, and said he would not agree to "poisoning" young people for the potential tax revenues.
"To me, legalization of marijuana for tax purposes — and that's the only way people justify it because you can't justify it any other way — is blood money," Christie said at the time. "That's what it is to me."
Scutari thinks his bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, may have a chance now that Christie is on his way out of the statehouse.
"I want it to be ready within the first 100 days of potential new governor's administration," he said.
Diane Literer with the New Jersey Prevention Network says very often laws are created for money without considering health and safety impacts.
"Often the people who start using marijuana it's before their age 21 and their brain is still developing and so the impact of marijuana on a developing brain is much more significant than for an adult," she said.
But Scutari says what he calls "the drug's success" in the west should be the barometer.
"Obviously we haven't seen any dire consequences from Colorado's legalization efforts," Scutari said.
According to Colorado emergency room admissions, the number of marijuana related emergency room visits in the state increased 123-percent from nearly 8,200 in 2011 to more 18,000 after the legalization.
Contradictory to drug prevention specialists, Scutari has pointed out evidence that cannabis can help addicts wean themselves off opiods but others say there is not enough scientific evidence.
In Colorado you can grow pot at home, that's not in the New Jersey bill.
Scutari said recreational legalization will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, like colorado which had a record $1.3-billion in medical and retail sales in 2016.
"Escalating sales tax starting with sales taxed at seven percent," he said.
Scutari said there was also hope that legal marijuana could help battle the opioid crisis.
"I can't say I know what it's going to do, but based on what it did in other states, it will decrease the opioid epidemic, not just in this state, but country-wide," he said.
Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey since 2010, but it's tightly regulated and only sold at licensed dispensaries.
Scutari sent his bill to the legislative committee to review and plans to start hearings this year. He wants to put added tax dollars towards drug treatment programs, transportation projects, or other areas in need of a boost.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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