A state senator who wants New Jersey to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for recreational use returned this week feeling good after a fact-finding visit to Colorado.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, didn’t try the product. But he's more convinced than before that New Jersey should legalize pot after experiencing how legalization has positively impacted Colorado's economy, tax revenues and crime rates.

“Change is always difficult. Do I see it as an uphill fight? Yeah, it’s an uphill fight,” Scutari said. “But it’s changing. It’s not as uphill as when I stood here two years ago and told you that I wanted to legalize marijuana. We’re in a lot better position now. And I’ll tell you what: I feel a lot more comfortable doing it now that I’ve seen a really good industry.”

Sen. Nicholas Scutari discusses his trip to Colorado to learn about marijuana legalization. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

Scutari gave an oral report on his trip to Statehouse reporters Tuesday, including a slide slow of photographs from the dispensaries he visited and information he gathered. Over four days, he visited Denver, Boulder and Golden and spoke with state and police officials as well as marijuana retailers.

“From the anecdotal information you hear about what going on, that this is open-air drug – it couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, there’s nothing that’s happened that I can see that’s absolutely detrimental to the community,” Scutari said.

“I didn’t see anybody out smoking it. I didn’t see anybody out ingesting it. It didn’t appear to me that anybody was walking around in a state of inebriation,” he said. “Just nice towns that we’d be proud to have in our communities.”

Colorado voters legalized marijuana in 2012, and the product has been sold there as a regulated industry since 2014. It exists side-by-side with a medical marijuana program.

Scutari said he was told there have been decreases in suicide among veterans and opiate use. He said he was told there has been a significant drop in use of marijuana by adolescents, though a federal survey out late last year says use by Colorado teens is up slightly and is the highest rate in the nation.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari holds up packaging for edible marijuana products sold in Colorado. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

There were a few lessons learned from Colorado’s experience Scutari said he may use in making revisions to the legalization plan he first offered in 2014:

  • Make sure the packaging on edible marijuana products is clear about the dosage level, so people don’t consume too much.
  • Ensure police departments have experts trained in drug recognition to know whether a driver is intoxicated, since the tests aren’t the same as for drunk driving.
  • Either figure out a way to properly regulate home-grown marijuana, or don’t allow it.

“They know where every seedling and plant starts, grows, ends and is sent to, sold and consumed. They can track it all. But when you’re growing it yourself, it’s harder to track it,” Scutari said. “… I think you want to regulate it that tightly just for a couple of different reasons. You don’t want to leak black market marijuana out to other states. That’s where they seem to be losing it. And you’re also losing money in the regulated industry.”

In New Jersey, an estimated 844,000 people a year used marijuana, according to the most recent federal health survey, covering 2013 and 2014, up from 759,000 in the previous year. The number who had used marijuana in the previous month was 472,000, up from 389,000.

New Jersey isn’t likely to move to legalize marijuana before 2018 at the earliest, given the vocal opposition of Gov. Chris Christie, who reiterated his viewpoint when asked a question Monday at a forum hosted by the Morris County of Chamber of Commerce.

“There is no bigger anti-drug person than me. I will never decriminalize marijuana in this state, I will never legalize marijuana in this state, for every minute that I’m governor,” Christie said. “It’s a gateway drug, it’s a bad thing, and we shouldn’t be doing it. And we shouldn’t be sending messages to our kids and young adults saying it’s OK. It’s not.”

Scutari intends to keep working on the legislation so it’s in place to act upon when the next governor takes office in 2018 – not knowing, of course, whether that governor will support legalization. He said he hopes to have a revised bill ready in 60 days and hold a hearing on it this fall.

“We’re going to move the ball down the field,” Scutari said. “This is a process. We have a lot of legislators that need education on this. I encourage people to go out and take a look and see for themselves. I could not be more pleasantly surprised at what I saw.”