Unequal & Unfair: NJ's War on Marijuana Users

Unequal & Unfair: New Jersey’s War on Marijuana Users

Executive Summary

The Problem

New Jersey’s marijuana laws are failing us. Law enforcement has unsuccessfully tried for more than 80 years to arrest marijuana use out of existence, but support for making it legal is greater than it’s ever been. Each year, New Jersey police make increasingly more marijuana possession arrests, yet the state has little to show for it. Prohibition has failed. It’s time for common sense.

New Jersey’s arrest practices for marijuana possession illustrate the failure of marijuana enforcement. They have a devastating impact of aggressive, costly, racially disparate punishment for use of a drug that for adults is less dangerous than alcohol.

For the first time ever, the analysis in this report takes a deep dive into New Jersey’s marijuana possession arrest practices. What it finds is deeply troubling: New Jersey is making more arrests for marijuana possession than ever in a manner that is more racially disparate than ever.

Indeed, our marijuana arrest problem is getting worse, not better.

Key findings

  • New Jersey is making more arrests for marijuana possession than ever before. In 2013, New Jersey law enforcement made 24,067 marijuana possession arrests, 26 percent more than in 2000, when police made 19,607 arrests. Between 2000 and 2013, New Jersey police made nearly 280,000 total marijuana possession arrests.
  • Police make a marijuana possession arrest in New Jersey on average every 22 minutes. This plays out with varying frequency around the state. Cape May was the county with the highest per capita arrest rate in 2013, and the 28th Legislative District, represented by Senator Ron Rice and Assembly members Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker, was the district with the highest per capita arrest rate that year. Seaside Park in Ocean County had the highest per capita arrest rate of any community in the state.
  • Racial disparities in New Jersey marijuana arrests are at an all-time high. The racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests reached an all-time high in 2013. That year, Black New Jerseyans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates. In 2000, Blacks were 2.2 times more likely to be arrested than Whites, an increase of 34 percent. In 2013, Blacks were 11.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites in the 21st Legislative District. And in Point Pleasant Beach, Blacks were 31.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in 2013 — the highest racial disparity of any municipality included in the study.
  • New Jersey wastes more than $143 million per year to enforce our marijuana possession laws. Adding up the cost of police, courts, and corrections, New Jersey expends tremendous resources to implement and enforce marijuana prohibition. Indeed, throughout the past decade, New Jersey has spent more than $1 billion to enforce these laws. These are resources that could be invested in treatment, education, prevention, or other community needs.
  • Nine out of ten marijuana arrests are of users, not dealers. In 2013, marijuana possession arrests made up 88 percent of total marijuana arrests statewide. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 arrests made for marijuana were not of dealers or kingpins, but rather New Jerseyans who possessed the lowest amount counted by New Jersey law. In Monmouth County, this number reached 95 percent. It was 97 percent in the 8th Legislative District. In 14 New Jersey communities included in the study, 100 percent of arrests were for low-level possession in 2013.

These findings are particularly troubling when one understands the potential collateral: jail, loss of one’s job, a criminal record for at least three years, driver’s license suspension, up to $1,255 in fines and fees, and potential consequences for one’s immigration status, financial aid eligibility, access to public housing, and the ability to adopt children.

Indeed, many New Jerseyans’ lives have been disrupted or damaged by marijuana arrests. This report features but a few of them. In one, Lee, a Newarker in his late 40s, was home with his wife one evening and saw officers on their porch, looking for a suspect. He asked if they needed help, and the officers barged in, forcing Lee and his wife on the floor. Lee told officers that they had a small amount of marijuana — less than an ounce. They arrested him for marijuana possession, traumatizing him and his wife in the process.

A Solution Within Reach

Stories like Lee’s put a human face on the nameless data points in this report, showing the unnecessary devastation that lurks behind each of the more than 24,000 marijuana arrests each year. And it’s stories like his that have led civil rights leaders, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, doctors, religious leaders, and the majority of New Jerseyans to support the call to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults in New Jersey.

Their voices are found throughout this report, including those of Richard Smith, President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference; Lt. Dominick Bucci, a retired New Jersey State Police narcotics detective; Dr. David Nathan, a Clinical Associate Professor at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association; Rev. Craig Hirshberg, former director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry; Leo M. Bridgewater, a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Lazaro Cardenas of the Latino Action Network.

With nearly 60 percent of New Jerseyans supporting the legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana for adults, according to a 2015 Rutgers Eagleton poll, these leaders are not alone.

Police make an average of 66 new marijuana possession arrests every day. New Jersey cannot afford to wait any longer to put an end to our broken system of marijuana prohibition. New Jersey communities—particularly communities of color—continue to bear the brunt of our failed policies. The time to end this injustice is now.

Key recommendations

  • New Jersey should legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults. It’s time for a law to end marijuana prohibition and replace it with a safe, legal, regulated marijuana system. New Jersey should build a system that ends criminalization and mitigates the past harms of our marijuana laws; keeps marijuana out of the hands of young people; bolsters the New Jersey economy; keeps “Big Marijuana” from dominating the marketplace; and reinvests in the health, safety, and economic well-being of New Jersey communities, including those disproportionately impacted by our failed enforcement of prohibition.
  • The State should require police departments to properly record Hispanic/Latino arrest data. The absence of data on the number of Hispanics/Latinos arrested likely leads to an artificially lower black-white racial disparity. The Legislature or Attorney General should require police departments to keep track of the number of Hispanic/Latino arrests for marijuana possession to properly assess the law’s impact on the Hispanic/Latino community.
  • The New Jersey Attorney General should investigate causes of racial disparities in arrests. With consistent government data showing that whites and Blacks use marijuana at largely the same rates, the growing racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession in New Jersey demands further scrutiny to determine the cause of such disparities. This investigation could also shed light on persistent racial disparities throughout the New Jersey criminal justice system, not just in marijuana arrests.

By moving forward to finally end our broken system of marijuana prohibition, New Jersey would not be taking a radical or unprecedented step. States across the country and nations around the world are rapidly moving toward legalization. Reform of our marijuana laws is a civil rights priority and a key component of reforming our broken criminal justice system.

Unequal & Unfair: The Full Report

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