PLEASANTVILLE — A group of religious leaders and advocates in the state met Wednesday to discuss a component of marijuana legalization to consider: social and racial justice.

With about 24,000 people arrested each year in New Jersey for marijuana possession, black Americans are three times more likely to be among the arrested, said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The panel that met at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville concluded with the idea that marijuana legalization shouldn’t just be about ending prohibition — the focus should be on equity and fairness, panelists said.

“Marijuana legalization is a social justice issue,” Scotti said. “Some people don’t understand just how damaging a marijuana arrest and conviction really is.”

The forum was hosted by the church, along with the Drug Policy Alliance, the Mainland and Atlantic City chapters of the NAACP and the Coalition for a Safe Community.

Members of the panel discussed components to consider around legalization, such as where revenue would be directed, prioritizing revenue to communities that have been affected by marijuana prohibition and making sure there is equity in the industry.

The Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III, pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pleasantville, talked about the structural issues around the prohibition of marijuana and their effect on communities of color.

He called marijuana prohibition the “sin of the state” and said communities have been “unjustly stigmatized and unjustly criminalized.”

“The reality is that the only gate that marijuana has opened has been the gate to the prisons,” Francois said.

The panel also discussed how to address reparations for people who already were affected by marijuana prohibition.

Francois said while legalization would not provide an immediate solution to criminal justice reform, there must be advocacy for things such as immediate release for people who are already imprisoned, expungement of records for past offenses and implementing incentives for minority entrepreneurs.

The Rev. Timothy Jones, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church of Newark, said legalizing marijuana could help regulate it and perhaps limit illegal use and keep it out of the hands of youth.

Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, also president of the city’s NAACP branch, moderated the discussion and said legislation should consider inequities in communities of color before moving forward.

“If there is to be marijuana legislation and legalization, there must be a social justice consideration,” he said.

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