New Jersey Lawmakers Fumble Cannabis Legalization as Related Arrests Continue to Rise

To quote… well… pretty much anyone from the hit TV show The Sopranos, anybody in New Jersey who was hoping that their state’s lawmakers would have the balls to craft and pass comprehensive cannabis legalization this year can “fuhgeddaboutit”.

In a wet-sock of an admission of failure this week, New Jersey state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) confessed that they just didn’t have the votes they needed despite a 26-13 majority for their own party in the Senate. Instead, they say, an initiative will be drafted allowing the voters themselves the opportunity to decide whether or not the Garden State will implement new recreational cannabis laws for adults.

The plan is to have that initiative prepared in time to appear on the 2020 general election ballot. Sweeney says he is confident that his cowards colleagues in the Senate will allow the voters to blaze the trail that they lacked the guts to blaze themselves. Details are few and far between for now but on the surface, it doesn’t look unlike the system currently limping along in California. A state-sanctioned regulatory agency will oversee a licensed supply chain of growers, manufacturers, processors, distributors, testing labs, and retail outlets to make legal cannabis products available to adults ages 21 and up. Like Cali, New Jersey will charge a state tax on all retail transactions, but initial reports are that there will be no mandatory excise tax stacked on top (currently 15% in CA). Will cultivators be taxed? If so, how? What about supply chain transactions at the distro and wholesale levels? This all remains to be seen.

Jersey politicians, who have utterly failed to satisfy the will of 58% of the voters who favor recreational cannabis legalization, are trying to paint this most recent letdown as positively as possible, spinning it as a democratic handoff to voters and nothing more. But when you have the vehemently anti-cannabis organization Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) cheerleading your fumble, you might want to refrain from such an awkward celebration. Their next move will be to spend the next 12 months dumping time and resources into disparaging the voter-bound initiative.

That’s swell, except for the fact that local cops will arrest somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 New Jersey residents between now and then on cannabis-related charges, despite the fact that state lawmakers vow to automatically expunge all such crimes just as soon as the voters do the job they couldn’t do. The problem is, they are arresting nearly 40,000 people each year, but only working their way through about 10,000 expungement cases.

That’s right – 37,623 arrests in 2017 alone. Someone in New Jersey is arrested every 15 minutes for cannabis possession or distribution and in an era of unprecedented cannabis reform from coast to coast, that number is actually on the rise in New Jersey. In 2017, roughly 38 of every 10,000 NJ residents were arrested for pot possession. That is more than double the national average. Only two states have a higher cannabis-related arrest rate than New Jersey - Wyoming and South Dakota.

Reflecting the shame we see across the country, even though they represent just 13% of the overall population, African American residents in New Jersey are roughly 3x more likely to be arrested on such charges compared to their Caucasian peers, even though both races consume cannabis in relatively equal amounts. Many people do not realize just how rural vast swaths of the state are and when you focus on the higher population centers, the shame deepens.

In Salem County, the disparity is 6x the rate.

In Ocean County, African Americans are arrested at 7x the rate for possession.

In Hunterdon County, black people are 11x more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.

Much like their neighbors in New York, Democrat lawmakers in New Jersey have gotten a little too comfortable in their seats and think that they can neglect this increasingly more discussed social issue and continue to kick the can down the road, all while taxpayer-funded law enforcement officers continue to ruin the lives of residents over a harmless plant that will be legal by this time next year.

The ACLU called the cannabis arrest rate in New Jersey a “crisis” back in 2013. That rate has jumped by more than 33% since then as the roots of injustice in the state hold firm.

Every cannabis-related arrest made between now and Election Day 2020 is an indictment of the ineptitude of New Jersey politicians and, unfortunately, there are plenty of them to come.

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