Though polls show most people in New Jersey agree that marijuana should be legalized, there has been an increase in marijuana arrests in the state in recent years, the ACLU of New Jersey’s most recent data reports. Out of these arrests, racial disparities between Black and white suspects are high.
The ACLU is advocating for legalization based on civil rights and justice arguments.
Recently, the ALCU broke down New Jersey’s marijuana arrest records from 2013 and found Black people in New Jersey were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges, despite usage rates being similar across races. This month, the ACLU looked into the most recent data from 2017, which marked a significant uptick in marijuana arrests and racial disparities. In 2013, there were 27,923 marijuana-related arrests for possession — not high-level distribution. In 2017, those numbers went up to 37,623. In certain counties, the racial disparities among these marijuana-related arrests were even higher. In Hunterdon County, Black people were 11 times more likely to be arrested than white people. In Ocean and Salem counties, the disparity was seven and six times, respectively.
“For the ALCU, first and foremost, marijuana legalization is about racial justice,” Amol Sinha, executive director of the New Jersey ACLU chapter said during a conference call with reporters Friday.
He said every 13 minutes, someone in New Jersey is arrested for a marijuana-related offense. There has been a 35% increase in these arrests between 2013 and 2017.
The ACLU is advocating for marijuana legalization and the expungement of records for those already convicted of cannabis-related charges if the bill becomes law.
“This is a moral impairment, and we have to see it from a faith and civil rights lens, that cannabis prohibition has really been a means of criminalizing and dehumanizing Black and brown people,” Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, who works with New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, said. “The so-called ‘drug war’ has really been a war on people.”
The bill the ACLU and lawmakers are proposing would be the first in the country centered on racial and social justice. New Jersey also would be the third state in the country to pass marijuana legalization through the legislative process instead of through a ballot measure. Boyer said the benefit of sending a bill through the legislative process before having people vote on it leads to more clarity when it comes to its passing and implementation.
“New Jersey advocates and lawmakers have worked painstakingly to write social justice into the legislation, which includes some of the most socially and racially just provisions seen in the country,” Boyer said.
Boyer said the war on drugs is truly a war on people and affects their daily lives.
“As each day goes by without legalization, we are subjecting more and more people to the collateral consequences that come with an arrest or conviction,” Boyer said.
These consequences can hurt people’s opportunities to break cycles of poverty.
“It’s important to underscore the lifelong consequences of these arrests or convictions,” Sinha said. “We know that a marijuana-related conviction can make it difficult, or in some cases impossible, for people to find employment, access student loans for college, get a driver’s license and access other important opportunities. However, even without a conviction, just the arrest carries a stigma, as well as lost hours at work or school and onerous financial costs.”
Boyer said the intentionality of the civil rights-related wording in the legislation is central.
“We can’t just start from scratch and invent a fair process,” he said. “We have to intentionally make it so.”
Legalization also would benefit communities, Boyer said. A quarter of cannabis-selling licenses would be reserved for women, people of color and disabled veterans, which would help underrepresented populations own businesses and make money. Marijuana sales also would be taxed.
“Legalization presents us with the opportunity to both reorient our spending away from the failed prohibition policies and towards programs that better support families and communities and earn tax revenue throughout the statewide and local level,” Boyer said.
Allison Peltzman, the ACLU’s communications director, also explained how the report itself was created. The researchers matched their data points to those from 2013 and broke it down further, showing arrests specifically for possession. The data available was for arrests — not people arrested — per year, which means some people may have been arrested multiple times on the same charge.
They used data from the FBI’s uniform crime rate report and the census. They combined data from both 2016 and 2017 to include the breakdown of information by county that was not yet available for 2017.
The report also included arrest rates by race in 2016. The rate of arrest per 100,000 was 925 for Black New Jerseyans, 433 for Native Americans, 326 for whites and 73 for Asians. Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Monmouth and Union counties had the highest numbers for marijuana arrests and highest rates of arrest per 100,000 people.
The limitations in the FBI’s uniform crime rate report could possibly be more telling. Peltzman said the report only breaks race down into Black, white, Native American and Asian and does not take ethnicities like Hispanic/Latino into account. Therefore, she said the number of racial disparities the ACLU is presenting likely are underestimations.
“Arrests of people identified in law enforcement reports as white may also include Latino folks as well,” Peltzman said.
Peltzman said these disparities are emblematic of the prison system and the continued institutionalized systems of injustice people of color face.
Though the report presents statistics, Peltzman drew attention to the people behind the numbers.
“These arrests are devastating people’s lives,” Peltzman said. “Those 37,623 arrests interrupted people’s lives. Those arrests saw families torn apart and generations scarred. Those arrests squandered state resources at taxpayer expense, all for a substance that the majority of New Jerseyans believe should be legal.”