ACLU-NJ Marijuana Data Brief Finds Cannabis Arrests Have Skyrocketed Since Earlier Report

November 15, 2019

NEWARK – Marijuana arrest numbers have increased dramatically, and racial disparities in arrest rates haven’t budged, according to a data brief (PDF) released by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today that examined the state’s 2016 and 2017 crime data.

In 2017, New Jersey made 37,623 arrests for marijuana possession and distribution charges, going up nearly 35 percent from the 27,923 arrests made in 2013 on possession and distribution. According to the 2017 numbers, New Jersey averaged about 95 marijuana possession arrests per day, amounting to one arrest every 15 minutes. In contrast, ACLU-NJ’s 2017 report found that in 2013, New Jersey averaged 66 possession arrests statewide per day, or one arrest approximately every 21 minutes.

“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.”

The data brief gives an update to the ACLU-NJ’s groundbreaking 2017 report, “Unequal and Unfair: New Jersey’s War on Marijuana Users,” which laid out a case for legalization based on racial disparities in arrests and over-policing for marijuana possession.

The disturbing 2016 and 2017 arrest data provide a grim sequel to the ACLU-NJ’s prior report. The analysis of 2016 numbers shows that the 3-to-1 disparity in arrest rates among Black and white individuals has remained constant since the earlier report revealed it, even with an increase to 34,501 possession arrests in 2017 from the 24,067 marijuana possession arrests made in 2013.

“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.”

When narrowed by county, the troubling Black-white racial disparities in arrests get even starker in some portions of the state. Black people in Hunterdon County were 11 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. In Ocean County, Black people were arrested at seven times the rate for possession, and in Salem County, the disparity was six times the rate.

“The slow-motion civil rights catastrophe of marijuana arrests must end, and it must end now,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “We know that Black and brown communities have disproportionately borne the often-lifelong consequences an arrest wreaks on their employment prospects, their opportunities for education, and their very future. We know that the costs of marijuana prohibition are too steep for New Jerseyans to continue to pay. Our lawmakers can roll back the costs of prohibition and seize the opportunity to be a leader in criminal justice reform by legalizing marijuana through historic legislation that prioritizes racial and social justice.”

According to the ACLU-NJ’s analysis, six counties– Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Monmouth, and Union – are ranked among the highest counties for greatest number of total marijuana arrests and highest rates of arrest relative to their population among New Jersey’s 21 counties. Monmouth County, for instance, made 3,351 marijuana arrests in 2016 – the second-highest number in the state behind Bergen’s 3,681 – and also made the third-highest rate of arrest per 100,000 people at 534.

Although the majority of New Jerseyans believe marijuana should be legal, marijuana arrests have soared. This data reflects the urgent need for immediate action as the Legislature contemplates legalizing marijuana during the lame duck session.

Read the ACLU-NJ’s data brief.

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