NEWARK – A bill introduced aiming to decriminalize marijuana in the Garden State is a crucial stopgap measure before New Jerseyans have the opportunity to vote for marijuana legalization in November, leading advocates with New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform said. The exponential spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails – along with New Jersey’s worst-in-the-country COVID-19 death rate in prisons – adds even greater urgency to the need for decriminalization.

According to a national report by the American Civil Liberties Union in April, Black people in New Jersey are 3.45 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of use. S2535, introduced in the Legislature on June 4 by bill sponsors Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, Senator Ronald L. Rice, and Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, would decriminalize the use or possession of marijuana, hashish, and paraphernalia.

Decriminalizing marijuana in New Jersey would result in dramatically fewer arrests, which have increased in recent years despite the widespread belief among a majority of New Jerseyans that marijuana should be legal.

Members of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform issued the following statements:

Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation & Social Justice, said:
“Decriminalizing marijuana is a necessary step to confronting the deep-seated oppression in our criminal justice system.  S2535 is a promising way forward until New Jersey residents vote on a legalization ballot measure in November.

The bill could not come at a more dire time. Today, we find ourselves in an increasingly heavy, weary and difficult moment for Black and Brown bodies. Black brothers and sisters are being disproportionately killed from COVID-19, there is the ongoing attack of police brutality, and state and nationwide demonstrations for justice. The oppression is ongoing, and cannabis criminalization should not be part of the persecution.”

ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo said:
“As activists across the country join together in support of racial justice, New Jersey has the opportunity to take legislative action in the same vein. Decriminalizing marijuana would begin to reduce the growing number of arrests New Jersey makes each year that disproportionately affect Black people. S2535 introduced today comes at a time when we must implement all options available to us to further racial justice and reduce the prison population during a public health crisis unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime. We thank Sen. Ruiz for her leadership in these uncertain times, and we urge all members of the legislature to support S2535.”

Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, said:
“The New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP supports a decriminalization of marijuana bill as a stopgap measure until fair and equitable legalization can be implemented. Our involvement in cannabis policy stems from one irrefutable statistic: while marijuana usage rates are very similar among different ethnic and racial groups, black males in New Jersey are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. This number spikes to almost 30 times as much in certain municipalities. A single low-level drug offense can bar people from gainful employment, prevent them from obtaining financial or housing assistance from the federal government, and generally stigmatize them for years.”

Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network, said:
“This decriminalization of cannabis is a long-overdue measure that will right a great injustice whereby Latinos and African Americans have been targeted for persecution for far too long.”

Jon-Henry Barr, Clark Township municipal prosecutor and past president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association, said:
“Anything that keeps people who don't need to be there out of the criminal justice system gets us one step closer to a just society.”

David Nathan, founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, said:
“Doctors for Cannabis Regulation strongly supports the decriminalization of cannabis in New Jersey. At a time of overwhelming support from all sectors for the removal of penalties for all low-level cannabis offenses, our legislature has a clear mandate to pass this decriminalization bill. From the medical community’s standpoint, the interests of public health are served by a more compassionate, non-punitive approach to the possession and consumption of cannabis in the Garden State.”

Charlana McKeithen, executive director of Garden State NORML, said:
“Cannabis decriminalization is long overdue in New Jersey. Advocates for common sense cannabis reform have maintained for years that, to even begin to undo the harms wrought upon our communities by the War on Drugs, we must end cannabis-related arrests. Garden State NORML urges our state government to pass a bill that adequately addresses the needs of the people by minimizing civil penalties, prioritizing expungement processes, and ending arrests for cannabis-related offenses.”

Prime Sponsor Senator M. Teresa Ruiz said:
"The War on Drugs has ravaged communities of color for far too long. While we await voter approval of legalization, we cannot forget about those arrested and incarcerated every day on marijuana-related charges. By decriminalizing certain marijuana offenses we can prevent countless unnecessary arrests and the attendant legal consequences over the next seven months."