Disproportionate arrests of Black New Jerseyans point to urgency of legalization, say ACLU-NJ and NJ United for Marijuana Reform

NEWARK – Black New Jerseyans were arrested at a rate three times higher than whites between 2000 and 2013 despite similar usage rates, an ACLU-NJ report released today found. The ACLU-NJ analyzed marijuana possession arrest data for every county, municipality, and legislative district in the state. The report, which comes a week after the introduction of Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s bill to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older, illustrates through data and stories the toll of a marijuana arrest.

The release of the report comes the week before a scheduled hearing of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss S3195, a bill that proposes legalizing marijuana for adults.

“This report makes it clear: marijuana prohibition has been a failure, and it has created a civil rights crisis in New Jersey,” saidACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou. “Well over half of all Americans support legalization, but more people are arrested for marijuana possession in our state than ever before. The racial disparity in these arrests has only grown. It’s time to end needless criminalization of Black communities by ending marijuana prohibition.”

Black New Jerseyans consistently made up about 14 percent of the state population been 2000 and 2013. However, in 2000 they made up 29 percent of all marijuana possession arrests. That percentage grew to 36 percent in 2013 — an arrest rate three times the rate that white New Jerseyans faced, the report found.

Importantly, the ACLU-NJ found that because law enforcement groups arrest data for Hispanics/Latinos into data for whites, the arrest rate for whites is likely overinflated, causing the disparity between Blacks and whites to be underestimated.

“New Jersey’s marijuana laws are failing people of color,” saidRichard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “Our state’s criminal justice system has placed a disproportionate burden on people of color, and ending marijuana prohibition for adults is a start to lifting it. Our state has a choice: it can generate revenue to invest in our communities, or it can waste resources to target our communities for arrest unfairly and unnecessarily. The answer is clear: it’s time for legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana for adults.”

The ACLU-NJ sent the report, “Unequal & Unfair: New Jersey’s War on Marijuana Users,” to every member of the New Jersey Legislature, urging immediate action to legalize the use of marijuana for adults 21 and older to solve one of the state’s gravest sources of racial inequities. Interactive maps available online allow users to visualize the data. Since 2015, the ACLU-NJ has been a founding steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition of law enforcement, civil rights groups, medical professionals, and other thought leaders working together to end the injustice of marijuana prohibition.

“The war on marijuana is a war on marijuana users, and it’s disproportionately a war on Black communities,” saidACLU-NJ Interim Executive Director Diane Du Brule. “After almost 50 years of failed policy, it’s time for New Jersey to end the racial disparities inherent in marijuana prohibition. No legislator can in good conscience choose to continue locking people up and ruining lives to prop up misguided policy. Especially when ending that unjust system would usher in hundreds of millions in revenue per year, ending marijuana prohibition is the only sensible option.”

The report identified the parts of New Jersey with the highest arrest rates, as well as the highest disparities.

The five counties with the highest Black/white disparity in 2013 were:

  • Ocean
  • Salem
  • Hunterdon
  • Monmouth
  • Gloucester

The five counties with the highest per capita arrest rate in 2013 were:

  • Cape May
  • Salem
  • Monmouth
  • Union
  • Cumberland

The ACLU-NJ issued the following recommendations, among others:

  1. Legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults
    This will create jobs, increase public safety by undercutting the illicit drug market, generate state revenue, and put an end to the harms caused by our current laws.
  2. Investigate the reasons behind racial disparities in arrests throughout the state.
  3. Approach marijuana from a public health perspective, not as a police responsibility.
    New Jersey towns need directives making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority.
  4. Require police departments to collect and publish comprehensive data on arrests, tickets, stops, and searches.
    Reinvest marijuana tax revenue in communities that have been hit hardest by unjust marijuana enforcement.

Marijuana arrests bring collateral consequences that can leave a lifelong impact: ineligibility for some government benefits, removing people from the workforce, lost educational and employment opportunities, and jeopardizing custody of one’s children, in addition to bearing the stigma and consequences of having a felony conviction. The report shows that the Black community has borne the brunt of the damage a marijuana arrest can cause, and it shows that the devastation has been wrought over individuals arrested for small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

“The ineffective and harmful prohibition of marijuana has inflicted far more harm on adults than the drug itself,” said Dr. David Nathan, Princeton-based psychiatrist, founder of the international organization Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and member of the steering committee of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. "For the sake of a just society and public health, the time has come for New Jersey to stop the destruction wrought by useless marijuana arrests. With 24,000-plus arrests each year in our state, enough lives have been ruined by marijuana’s prohibition."

New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR), a coalition that includes report authors ACLU-NJ as well as members of law enforcement, civil rights groups, medical professionals, and other thought leaders, works to end the injustice of marijuana prohibition.

The ACLU-NJ report details personal stories of individuals whose lives have been upended by a marijuana arrest. One man, a father and lifelong Newark resident, was enjoying a romantic evening with his wife when the SWAT team barged in, tearing a door from its hinges, putting holes in the walls, and tearing pillows apart. Though the man was not accused of any wrongdoing when the SWAT team arrived, he and his wife were handcuffed, and eventually the man was arrested for marijuana possession. After coming home from a holding cell downtown, he had to explain to his children in the morning why their rooms were torn apart.

In another story included in the report, a man called the police when his former partner stabbed him, puncturing his lung. The man was a registered medical marijuana patient, but police arrested him for having marijuana in the house.

“It’s an incredible waste of resources at every level of the justice system to arrest and jail adults for using marijuana,” said Jon-Henry Barr, municipal prosecutor of Clark, as well as the current secretary and past president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association. “Legalization is the practical solution and the only humane choice.”

The report emphasizes the importance of legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana use for adults. Legalization promises to create jobs, increase public safety by undercutting the illicit drug market, and generate millions of dollars in revenue to fund projects in the state, including drug treatment programs and reinvestment in communities devastated by the targeted war on marijuana.

“As a former narcotics detective, I have seen officers spend precious time and resources to enforce marijuana laws that simply do not work,” said Lieut. Nick Bucci, a retired New Jersey State Trooper. “It’s time to free up our law enforcement and criminal justice system to respond to real public safety threats. It’s time to end what amounts to a decades-long boondoggle that targets people who don’t belong in jail.”

Read the report and learn more about the injustices of marijuana enforcement.