The harms of legalizing marijuana for pleasure use have become clearer the past few years.
Pot is a destructive drug and addictive for 1 in 10 users, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — 1 in 6 for those who begin using before adulthood. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says long-term marijuana use can have permanent effects on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults — impairing learning, memory and attention. The damage can last even after people stop using it.
Another substantial harm, though, doesn’t come from marijuana itself, but rather the overzealous punishment of people for possession and use of small amounts of it.
That’s a legacy of the well-intentioned national war on drugs that failed in its goal of protecting society from drug addiction, overdoses and related crimes.
A recent report of FBI data by the America Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that about 38,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession or distribution in 2017. That’s a 36 percent increase from 2013.
Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly said that harsh penalties for marijuana crimes are a good reason to legalize it, sell it through state-chosen corporations and tax it.
But as we’ve said before, the appropriate response is to reform marijuana laws so the punishment for possessing small amounts doesn’t ruin lives — while leaving intact the state’s position that it is an illegal, harmful and potentially addictive narcotic.
Murphy uses “social justice” as a rationale to push for legalization, since blacks in New Jersey remain three times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana-related charges. But black legislators have been at the forefront of opposition to the governor’s legalization effort, fearful of the effect his commercial marijuana industry would have on minority communities.
One of them, state Sen. Ronald Rice, a fellow Democrat, has advocated for decriminalization — the right response to excess imprisonment for marijuana offenses. He and Republican Sen. Robert Singer have co-sponsored a bill that would levy a fine instead of prison time for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana. Such a bill was approved by an Assembly committee in May, but then was stalled as Murphy and legislative leaders used over-penalizing marijuana as a lever to try to get it legalized.
The good news now is that Murphy and legislators have indicated they’re willing to proceed with a decriminalization bill, now that their goal of legalization in the lame duck session has slipped away.
Decriminalization has gotten a good bipartisan start, and legislative leaders should work toward a bill that has broad support. Agreement should be easy on fines for possessing small amounts for personal use. Penalties for possession and distribution of large amounts of the drug, or selling it to minors, will require an effort to reach a functional consensus, which is appropriate.
State leaders can and should quit sending thousands of New Jersey people to prison for small marijuana offenses, but without sending the wrong message on the drug’s harms to individuals and dangers to society.