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TRENTON — Democratic lawmakers betting on a victory by their party in the New Jersey governor’s race want to begin work now on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana – a process that will be timed to allow them to wait out Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s current staunch opposition.

Despite warnings from the Trump administration that a hands-off approach to marijuana in the states may end, the leading Democratic candidates for governor all support bringing Colorado-style pot laws to New Jersey.

The two top GOP candidates also say they are open to having marijuana decriminalized, and they support expanding the state’s existing medical marijuana program.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said Monday that his legislation permitting the possession of small amounts of marijuana would “create a strictly regulated system’’ and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue. Scutari, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there will be hearings “soon.”

Christie has long opposed legalizing recreational marijuana, recently calling the idea “beyond stupidity,’’ and saying it would bring “poison’’ into New Jersey if the drug is legalized.

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis on opiates and we have people saying yeah, but the pot’s OK,’’ the governor said at a substance abuse and mental health conference sponsored by the New Jersey Hospital Association at the start of the month.

Scutari said he’s unlikely to try to change Christie’s mind, saying the governor “doesn’t want to pass it and is working hard against it. He can be a somewhat tough adversary on occasion.’’

Scutari said he wants his bill to have full legislative approvals and be “ready in the first 100 days’’ for signature in the term of the next governor. Christie leaves office in January.

Still, a New Jersey law could be in conflict with policy in Washington, given a directive to federal prosecutors last week from President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, calling for a crackdown on drug defendants. 

Scutari said he expects public support for legalization will eventually win out over any opposition from the federal government.

“We’ve just recently seen polling that is starting to eclipse 70 percent approval rating,” Scutari said. “People are tired of the same thing over and over.”

A report from New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform last year said legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana in New Jersey could bring at least $300 million a year into the state’s coffers. Researchers said about 4 percent of New Jersey’s population — an estimated 365,900 individuals over the age of 21 — use marijuana on a monthly basis, consuming an estimated 3.5 million ounces of cannabis a year, and they spend an estimated $869 million a year on marijuana, at an average price of $343 an ounce, buying it on the illegal market.

Scott Rudder, a former Republican assemblyman from Burlington County, and now president of New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and a partner at Burton Trent Public Affairs LLC, said he and other advocates never expected Christie to change his mind on the topic.

“I think you’re finding bipartisan support and bipartisan concerns at this point. I’ve spoken with Republicans who are fully in support of this measure — it’s not a party issue, it’s what you know about it, and how has it impacted your world,” Rudder said.

Scutari’s bill calls for establishing an escalating tax rate, starting at 7 percent and rising to 25 percent over five years — the intent being to initially price the product competitively and “undercut the black market,” he said.

“We don’t want to make marijuana legal and still have people buying it on the street corner. We want to bring it out of the shadows,” he said.

Nine lawmakers traveled to Colorado in October to meet with state officials and tour farms and dispensaries. The group was accompanied by Princeton Public Affairs Lobbyist Kevin Hagen, representing the N.J. Liquor Store Alliance, which wants its members to be allowed to sell pot alongside alcoholic beverages.

Colorado is among eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana by referendum.

Last week, Vermont lawmakers approved a bill to legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and up to 2 mature cannabis plants for those 21 or older starting in July 2018. If Republican Gov. Phil Scott signs the measure – he’s indicated he has concerns about the bill but is “not opposed’’ — Vermont would become the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use through legislation, rather than a voter initiative.

Bob Jordan bjordan@gannettnj.com

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