New Jersey is on the cusp of legalizing marijuana for adult use. After years of stagnation around marijuana reform, the state has taken great strides toward ending marijuana prohibition. Yet despite this progress, the fact remains that the legislation to legalize marijuana that is currently being considered in the New Jersey Legislature fails to meaningfully repair harms to the communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition and create a fair and equitable marijuana market. Along with our New Solutions Marijuana Reform Coalition, a broad group of racial and social justice organizations and faith leaders from across New Jersey, we continue to demand legislation that fulfills the reparative justice potential of ending marijuana prohibition.
For decades, the War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of people around the state. In 2016 alone, more than 32,000 arrests were made for marijuana possession, subjecting tens of thousands of New Jerseyans to a system of legal discrimination that can last a lifetime. The collateral consequences of a marijuana arrest and/or conviction – including barriers to access housing, employment, financial aid for college, and driver’s licenses – harm not only individuals, but their families and communities.
These negative impacts have disproportionately burdened people and communities of color. In fact, African Americans in New Jersey are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites despite similar rates of use, and evidence suggests that similar disparities exist for Latinos.
While many legislators have acknowledged these racial disparities and cited them as a reason for marijuana legalization, the legislation under consideration prioritizes the marijuana industry through a series of policies that favor businesses rather than the people who have borne the brunt of our racist enforcement of marijuana laws, including the over-policing and criminalization of people of color and low-income people.
In response to the clear racial disparities that have resulted from marijuana prohibition, the New Jersey Legislature must advance legislation that is truly centered in racial and social justice. Failure to do so will only perpetuate our already unequal criminal justice system and exacerbate economic inequality.
At this point, marijuana legalization in New Jersey is not a matter of if or when, but a matter of how. Rather than rush through legislation that neglects racial and social justice provisions such as community reinvestment of marijuana tax revenue, automatic and retroactive expungement, civil penalties for marijuana activities that occur outside the new legal system, and an inclusive industry that reflects the diversity of our state, legislators must join advocates in their call for fair and equitable marijuana reform.
People across New Jersey demand a vision of marijuana legalization that centers justice and equity.
Check out the video below which highlights a panel on marijuana legalization and racial justice we convened earlier this year to lift up what fair and equitable marijuana legalization should look like in New Jersey.
Ami Kachalia is a policy coordinator for the New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance.