New Jersey voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana in November and the state attorney general is instructing prosecutors to suspend low-level cannabis cases—but the number of marijuana-related arrests in the state’s largest city have remained largely unchanged compared to last year.
That’s according to a recent analysis of crime report data in Newark by Justin Leiby, an associate professor of accountancy at the University of Illinois.
The Newark Police Department made a total of 57 marijuana-related arrests in the first 20 days of this year, compared to 63 arrests made for the same period in 2020. But more notably, that trend is driven by a spike in arrests for simple possession alone, which grew from 39 last year to 48 this year—a 23 percent increase.
This is despite the fact that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) issued guidance in November telling prosecutors not to take on low-level cannabis cases as lawmakers work to develop regulations for a regulated market. His office also recently circulated a follow-up notice extending that policy until March 31, NJ Advance Media reported.
Meanwhile, cases of possession with the intent to distribute in Newark declined 63 percent, from 24 in the first days of January 202 to just nine in the same time period this year. That activity would not be legalized under the vote-approved referendum.
What makes these statistics all the more troubling from advocates’ perspective is that the overall arrests for all crimes in Newark were lower in the first 20 days of this year compared to 2020. The numbers of busts dropped from 631 to 347, or 45 percent. Yet police are still managing to find new cases where cannabis is involved.
It should be noted that some arrests included in Leiby’s analysis are for marijuana as well as other illicit drugs. But it remains the case that people are still being criminalized and possibly getting records for possessing cannabis when the plant was legalized via referendum and legislation is actively being considered to allow for retail sales.
It’s also the case that cannabis busts may be understated in the data, as some law enforcement descriptions of the arrests generally refer to drugs but do not specify the substances.
When asked about the cannabis arrest data, the Newark Department of Public Safety (NDPS) conducted its own analysis and found that arrests for possession alone were seven percent lower in the first 20 days of January 2021 compared to 2020 (55 versus 59 arrests).
That’s based on the department’s “preliminary numbers for possession of marijuana.” It’s unclear why there are minor discrepancies in the figures provided by Leiby, which is based on publicly available city data, and those from NDPS.
Either way, a minor single-digit reduction in cannabis arrests is probably not what most voters had in mind when they approved legalization at the ballot box in November.
Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose defended the enforcement actions in a statement to Marijuana Moment.
“The state of New Jersey has laws that are currently in place that make marijuana a criminal act,” he said. “The current law does not reflect the referendum. Until the laws are changed, we have to abide by the current law. Also, most of the people arrested were given summonses. They were not a criminal matter.”
Leiby said the departments defense of the arrests “is pretty thin given that the New Jersey Attorney General has told prosecutors to stop prosecuting possession cases and delay cases in which there are other pending charges in addition to marijuana possession.”
“What’s the point of arresting people for something prosecutors have been ordered to ignore?” he said. “Note that I am not criticizing the officers doing the arrests, or really even the Newark Police Department. Officers are doing their jobs. If you tell them it’s not their job to arrest people for marijuana possession, then most if not all of them would stop the arrests.”
This analysis may come as an unwelcome surprise to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D), who is a strong proponent of cannabis reform with an eye toward racial justice.
In 2019, he and several other New Jersey mayors called for automatic expungements of low-level marijuana possession and distribution convictions if the state ultimately moved to legalize cannabis. The previous year, he criticized legalization legislation that was in the works because he felt it didn’t do enough to ensure social equity.
Baraka’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment for this story.
For police departments that are waiting on enabling legislation for legalization to be enacted before easing off cannabis cases, it may still be a while, as lawmakers have been stuck in a back-and-forth with the governor over a bill that they began crafting after the voter referendum was approved.
Both the legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy (D) are in favor of legalization, but there’s been disagreement over a particular provision related to penalties for underage people who violate the law. The governor wants underage possession to continue to be met with some penalty, but leading lawmakers say it is not their intent to criminalize such activity.
A “clean up” bill was expected to get a floor vote this month, but it was postponed after key legislators pulled their support.
“The continued arrests of New Jersey residents, overwhelmingly people of color, for marijuana possession represents a moral and political failing of state lawmakers,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “If the leadership of the Garden State is truly as concerned with justice, the governor would immediately sign the depenalization bill into law and end the draconic policy of putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in handcuffs for the possession of a plant that 67 percent of the voters say should be legal.”
DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the Newark arrest numbers “represent the unfortunate reality of the delay in effectuating legalization in New Jersey.”
“It’s disheartening to see that despite the overwhelming support of New Jersey voters for ending prohibition and cannabis-related arrests, in addition to the majority of legislators supporting cannabis reform legislation that people are still being arrested for cannabis,” he said. “It makes need for action by the Gov. Murphy and the legislature all the more direr.”
Murphy pledged in a State of the State address earlier this month that “we are on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.”
He also recently said that he remains “optimistic” that he can reach a deal with lawmakers to revise the enabling legislation they sent him last month, but Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) said that “the ball’s in his court,” referring to the governor.
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