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Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests Across New Jersey Worsen, Report Reveals, Making Legalization More Urgent

April 20, 2020

New Jersey’s racial disparities in marijuana arrests have only intensified in the last several years, a national report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union found. The increase in disparities and in marijuana arrests overall adds urgency to the call for marijuana legalization that prioritizes racial justice in advance of the referendum on cannabis on the Nov. 3 New Jersey ballot.

The release of the report coincides with the formation of a new, diverse campaign, NJ CAN 2020, with the aim of ensuring that racial justice remains at the center of New Jersey’s legalization efforts.

The New Jersey-specific data in the report, an analysis of 2018 arrest statistics, revealed that in New Jersey, Black people were arrested for marijuana at a rate 3.45 times higher than white New Jerseyans, despite similar usage – a marked increase since the last major examination of racial disparities in marijuana arrests issued in 2017. That data, a deep dive into 2013 statistics, revealed that Black people in 2013 were arrested at about three times the rate of white people. Strikingly, the racial disparity in 15 New Jersey counties was greater than the national average.

“This report confirms what we’ve known to be true: even as the unjust racial disparity in marijuana arrests has become common knowledge, including among law enforcement, the problem has only grown worse. Knowledge of the disparities cannot eradicate them – only through legalization with a foundation of racial and social justice can we begin to right this wrong,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “The staggering human rights crisis that COVID-19 has created in our prisons and jails paints a stark portrait of what’s at stake when we arrest people for using a substance that the majority of New Jerseyans believe should be legal. We need New Jersey voters to approve legalization, and we need the legislation that enacts it to put racial and social justice front and center.”

New Jersey ranked 11 for the highest rate of arrests of Black people for marijuana possession in 2018, and eighth in the nation in the arrest rate for marijuana possession per 100,000 people, according to the report, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana ReformThe report tracks marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018, serving as an update of the ACLU-NJ’s groundbreaking 2017 report, “Unequal and Unfair: NJ’s War on Marijuana Users,” which found that Black New Jerseyans were arrested at three times the rate of white New Jerseyans.

Between 2010 and 2018, New Jersey saw an increase of 45.6 percent in its rate of marijuana possession arrests, the ninth highest increase in the nation. By analyzing the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data, the report concludes that legalizing marijuana is the most effective way to combat the widening racial disparities in arrests.

Any effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey must also be coupled with mechanisms for expungement – no one should bear the burden of a criminal record or remain incarcercerated for charges related to a substance that would then be legal.

“The Garden State’s path forward must include legalizing cannabis in a way that centers racial justice, including expungement of records and creating an industry with opportunities for those hit hardest by the disastrous war on drugs,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “The disturbing facts of this report show that racial justice demands not only that we pass legalization on the ballot, but that we enact it through legislation that makes racial and social justice the top priority. We welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers, advocates, and community members to craft inclusive, forward-thinking legislation, and we will continue to urge New Jerseyans to vote yes on the ballot question to legalize cannabis in November.”

The new report showed that nationally, Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable marijuana usage rates. Racial disparities in arrest rates remain in every state.

A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform comes at a time when the criminal legal system is overwhelmed by the public health crisis presented by COVID-19 that demands release of people who are incarcerated to safeguard the lives of those incarcerated in and employed by jails and prisons. The reforms recommended in this report provide a roadmap for reducing marijuana arrests and criminalization as governors, prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders across the country grapple with the harms presented by the public health crisis and take steps to release people from jails and prisons.

“Many state and local governments across the country continue to aggressively enforce marijuana laws, disproportionately targeting Black communities,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “Criminalizing people who use marijuana needlessly entangles hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system every year at a tremendous individual and societal cost. As a matter of racial justice and sound public health policy, every state in the country must legalize marijuana with racial equity at the foundation of such reform.”

The full report is available here.

New Jersey data is available here.

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