With thirty-three states already having legalized cannabis in one form or another, New Jersey would become the twelfth state to legalize recreational marijuana, while five other states are considering similar measures.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, January 8, 2020
For the first time in more than a half century, a majority of Americans see marijuana use as a relatively harmless vice, no different than tobacco or alcohol. Many also see it as a beneficial alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals to treat everything from PTSD to seizures. For some, a smaller minority than ever before, it continues to be viewed as a dangerous gateway drug that can lead to addiction to hard drugs such as heroin and meth, wanton criminality, and moral turpitude. How you come down on the subject, can depend on a multitude of factors including race, class, education, religion, and political ideology, but regardless of how you view the drug for its supposed innocuousness, medical benefits or danger, it’s impossible to argue that prohibition has been effective in curbing it’s use. In fact, the criminalization of marijuana in America has unfairly targeted people of color, causing existential harm to families and communities, far exceeding whatever dangers the drug allegedly possesses.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that since 2013, marijuana-related have gone up significantly. In fact, arrests went from 27,923 in 2013, to 37,623 in 2017, a thirty-five percent increase in just four years. That averages out to 95 arrests per day, or about one every 15 minutes.
The study done in 2013 also found that black people were arrested at least three times the rate of white people for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates with whites. Those numbers have not only not improved, according to a new study done in 2017, some counties now report arrest rates as high as eleven times higher for blacks than for whites.
When they looked at the counties with the highest rates of arrest (per capita) for marijuana possession, Cape May County ranked number one, while Bergen County ranked number one in overall arrests.
“In the span of these four years of data, support for legalization has grown to unprecedented heights – and yet arrest numbers have skyrocketed and racial disparities have persisted,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “We described the marijuana numbers from 2013 as a civil rights crisis, and in the intervening years, that crisis has intensified. The ACLU-NJ’s data brief underscores what we already knew: Marijuana prohibition is emblematic of a criminal justice system with racism in its roots. To begin to reform that system, we have to pass legislation to legalize marijuana through a lens of racial justice, and we have to pass it now.”
Marijuana prohibition has its roots in racism and xenophobia as it was seen as the drug of choice by black and brown people.
According to a New York Times report, “The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason.”
Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated in the United States grew by 700 percent. As a result, the United States now incarcerates almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners while having only five percent of the world’s population. Although New Jersey has seen a recent decline in its incarcerated population, close to 35,000 people are still housed in its prisons and jails. In fact, despite the recent decline, the size of New Jersey’s prison population increased by 278 percent between 1975 and 2015.
People of color disproportionately face the brunt of mass incarceration. Nationally, Black people make up only about 13 percent of the population but comprise about 40 percent of prisoners. In New Jersey, the racial disparities are even worse: with 60 percent of individuals incarcerated in New Jersey being Black, while the state’s population was only about 15 percent Black. Although people of color make up only about 44 percent of New Jersey’s population, approximately 76.5 percent of prisoners in New Jersey are people of color. The state’s Black and Latino residents are incarcerated at rates 12.12 and 2.19 times higher, respectively, than that of white New Jerseyans, based on data from The Sentencing Project.
New Jersey taxpayers pay $54,865 per year for each person incarcerated in the state’s 13 prisons, adding up to more than $1.4 billion annually, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Among all states, New Jersey had the fourth-highest per-person cost of imprisonment. And this did not include the costs counties were bearing by keeping approximately 15,000 people statewide in jail each year. This includes Cape May County, where roughly 200 inmates are kept, costing over $11 million, not including the nearly $40 million price tag of the new jail.
Proponents argue that with our prisons overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders, many for petty amounts of a product that is now legal in eleven other states, do we really want to continue to foot the bill to irrationally imprison people of color? Is it finally time for America to end prohibition for the second time in its history?
“Lawmakers have the power to begin the long journey of addressing New Jersey’s painful history of racism in law enforcement by legalizing cannabis before the end of this legislative session,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, and a member of the steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “The Garden State cannot and should not wait any longer to legalize cannabis – a change supported by the majority of New Jerseyans – as so many lives hang in the balance, in danger of being derailed by New Jersey’s alarmingly high cannabis arrests.”
Even with a Democratic majority in the State Legislature, and a Democratic Governor who supports legalizing marijuana, lawmakers couldn’t find their way to passing legislation to legalize marijuana. New Jersey lawmakers instead passed a proposed ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana, putting the referendum before voters on the 2020 ballot. It is now up to the voters to fix a wrong that the legislature could not find its way to address.