As other states have decriminalized marijuana, New Jersey has gone in the opposite direction, cracking down on pot possession, according to the most recent state statistics.
New Jersey marijuana arrests increased 10 percent during 2012 and 2013, according to the latest State Police Uniform Crime Reports. There were 24,765 arrests in 2013, nearly double the number of arrests in 1993, according to the UCR and an analysis by the state American Civil Liberties Union. The state spent more than $127 million enforcing possession laws in 2010.
Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, said the recently released numbers are appalling because the state is close to legalizing the drug.
“That’s 24,000 people whose lives are ruined because of small amounts of marijuana. I believe it will be legal in two years here in New Jersey,” she said.
Proposals have been made to decriminalize marijuana possession in New Jersey, but Gov. Chris Christie, who would have to sign off on any such legislation, is an outspoken opponent.
State Police figures show that marijuana accounts for 57 percent of all drug-possession arrests in the state, more than all other drug possession and sales arrests combined.
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Those arrests disproportionately affect people of color.
The ACLU says that despite similar usage rates, black people are 2.8 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. In Ocean County, black people were 4.8 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.
On Nov. 16, state Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union, led a hearing on the idea of legalizing marijuana. Scutari has introduced legislation to tax and regulate marijuana, treating it like alcohol.
“The meeting was to discuss legalizing marijuana to create a billion-dollar industry, create jobs, create tax revenue and rid our streets of crime and illegal drug dealers,” Scutari said. In states that have legalized marijuana, “there have essentially been no downsides,” he said. “It’s changed their entire unemployment structure (in Colorado).”
In 2014, Philadelphia decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Marijuana-related arrests there dropped 73 percent over the first six months of 2015, according to a philly.com report.
Across the river in New Jersey, possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana carries a penalty of as many as six months imprisonment and more than $1,000 in fines for a first-time offender.
The state’s 21 county prosecutors sent a letter in April to state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Preito, stating “unanimous opposition” to bills that would legalize small amounts of marijuana for those over age 21.
“The long-term impact on marijuana use includes negative effect on IQ and learning, lower job productivity and performance and the economic and social costs to society for treatment,” the letter read.
The prosecutors said legalization would exacerbate the state’s budget issues, rather than solve them.
Atlantic City resident Will Vertus, 26, agrees. “I think it shouldn’t be legal, because drugs, they cause a lot of problems,” he said.
Avalon resident Ryan Ellis said the focus on marijuana arrests is counterproductive. “There are other things that need to be addressed,” he said. “All it does now is hurt low-income families if a family member gets arrested.”
Bill Caruso, an attorney and former executive director of the state Assembly Majority Office and a member of the steering committee of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform coalition, said a rough estimate of revenue and savings from legalization is several hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the first fiscal year after Colorado legalized marijuana, the state brought in more than $70 million in taxes, more than the $42 million it got for alcohol taxes, he said, and New Jersey has double the population of Colorado.
“It’s not a question of ‘if’ anymore. It’s a question of ‘when’ and ‘how,’” Caruso said.
Staff Writer Cindy Stansbury contributed to this report.