The next step after legalizing marijuana: Eliminating the color barrier

Under Chris Christie, blacks were targeted more than whites for pot possession. Proper legislation will fix that

Published January 28, 2018 8:30AM (EST)

 (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use in the state of New Jersey have rapidly accelerated as the new Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has been ushered into office.

Throughout his campaign, Murphy pledged he would legalize marijuana in the state for recreational use. On Tuesday, he ordered a review of the state's medical marijuana program. His goals were to allow home delivery, permit purchases greater than the two-ounce limit and increase the amount of licensed dispensaries to expand patient access.

"This is the more immediate priority. We will get to, in due course, I think sooner than later, the whole recreational process," Murphy said after he signed the executive order.

Murphy's order was a step in the right direction, and plans to legalize recreational use in the state should develop in the coming months. But it's not simply just about legalizing marijuana — it's also about making an attempt to provide equality for New Jersey residents who have seen the war on marijuana destroy communities of color. That's why New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR), an alliance of "public safety, medical, civil rights, faith, political, and criminal justice reform organizations" has advocated not just for the end of the prohibition on marijuana but for efforts to create a fairer criminal justice system.

"The time is ripe for us to get a bill together that actually embodies racial justice and social justice," Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey, told Salon. The ACLU is a member of NJUMR's steering committee.

Houenou pointed to measures nationwide to legalize marijuana "and then having to go back and fix some problems that arise after legalization."

"We think here in New Jersey we can get it done right from day one," Houenou explained. That requires getting people to understand the issues at play and "getting them to understand that we can address concerns in the legislation, so we can protect kids, we can make sure that money is reinvested into communities that have been targeted by the war on drugs and make sure that legalization can happen in a way that benefits all of New Jersey's communities."

In New York, even with its liberal decriminalization laws, law enforcement has still targeted people of color. Shaun King, a longtime criminal and racial justice journalist, writes:

This disparity extends to places that have legalized weed — and not just medical marijuana. As far as arrests go, the legalization wave has mainly helped white people. In Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana, arrests of white people have plummeted, but arrests of African-Americans and Latinos have actually skyrocketed as much as 50 percent. One has to ask: For whom did Colorado make marijuana legal?

Decriminalization efforts also don't go far enough and are not an effective way to make marijuana less of a criminal issue, as the Salon video below noted.

"It's not enough to just legalize marijuana and say that racial justice is achieved because we won't have any racially disproportionate arrests, that's not enough," Houenou explained to Salon. "To truly embody racial justice, legalization has to include expungements of peoples' prior records, we want to see money reinvested into communities that have been hit the hardest. We want to see meaningful access to the jobs and the ownership opportunities that are going to come with this new industry."

She added: "We want to see people be permitted to grow a limited number of plants, in their own home, for personal use. We think those are the basic four components that really capture racial justice and social justice."

Marijuana efforts in New Jersey were essentially halted for eight years under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration, who embraced tough on crime rhetoric and stood firmly against legalization. The reality is that in recent years, New Jersey has cracked down on marijuana on a massive scale, arresting more for possession than ever before, a recent ACLU report highlighted. A possession arrest in the state occurs "on average every 22 minutes." Of course, this also means systematic racial disparities have skyrocketed as well.

In 2013, "Black New Jerseyans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates," the report showed. In 2000, blacks were only 2.2 times more likely.

But Murphy has a bold progressive vision for the state and has aspired to transform New Jersey into "the California of the East Coast."

Marijuana is one area in which New Jersey should follow the progressive West Coast state's lead. California has been trying to right the ship and undo the abuses that come from marijuana prohibitions — prohibitions that largely hurt people of color. Pacific Standard, a magazine with a focus on social justice and public policy issues, elaborated:

California's Proposition 64, also known as "The Adult Use of Marijuana Act," made it legal for adults to possess and grow small amounts of pot at home, brought some pot-related felonies down to misdemeanors and some misdemeanors down to infractions, and reduced or dismissed prior convictions.

[. . .]

A little more than a year after the passage of Proposition 64, at least 2,660 petitions have been filed to reduce sentences for people convicted of pot-related offenses. At least another 1,500 petitions have been filed to re-classify old felony marijuana convictions as misdemeanors or to dismiss them altogether, depending on the offense, according to the Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of the state courts.

It's imperative that any legalization bill in New Jersey follows a model such as this, to usher in a new era and attempt to make any sort of amends for the old. With 59 percent of New Jerseyans supporting legal marijuana, it's a vision that is more than attainable.

Despite President Donald Trump administration's decision to turn back the clock on the so-called war on drugs, states across the country have made the conscious choice to move forward. Though, it's important to note that moving forward also means restoring what was destroyed to get to this point. There is no sense in legalizing marijuana if it doesn't properly address, and correct, the social and racial injustices that have boiled over and sparked the movement to end prohibition in the first place. In New Jersey, the new Murphy administration has already taken commendable progressive steps and has vowed to stand up to the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who have threatened to crackdown on legalization efforts. While the Democrats appear to be fractured in many ways, this is one issue that can, perhaps, help unify.

By Charlie May

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