In April, after more than two years of legal snags, New Jersey finally issued the first of six permits to grow medical marijuana legally. That’s good news for New Jersey patients suffering from a small list of life-threatening illnesses. The state’s other pot-smokers are still subject to stiff fines and jail time if they’re caught with the stuff.
The State Assembly had scheduled a vote on Thursday on decriminalizing non-medical marijuana, but the vote has been delayed until June. Many supporters say the bill stands a good chance of making its way to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, and the fact that Connecticut recently decriminalized marijuana could potentially sway the New Jersey governor.
It’s important to note the vast difference between decriminalization and legalization. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977. However, in 2011, the NYPD arrested 50,700 people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, making the arrests the highest number in over a decade. Also notable: more people were arrested in New York City for marijuana possession than for any other crime.
Currently, possession of 50 grams of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor offense in New Jersey, meaning possession is cause for arrest, and conviction results in a criminal record. If convicted, the maximum punishment is a jail term of up to six months, and a fine of up to $1,000.
If New Jersey’s decriminalization law passes, possession of 15 grams or less would be civil offense, punishable by a fine between $100 and 500. The bill has bi-partisan support in the State Assembly, and it would not need a single Republican vote to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Christie, however, has declined to comment on the bill.
Some opponents fear that the bill would promote recreational marijuana use. Bruce Hummer of the New Jersey Prevention Network, told the Star-Ledger that decriminalization would “send a mixed message to our youth,” and make the drug “accepted by the community.”
But supporters say decriminalization saves taxpayers money by reducing judicial and correctional costs, and most importantly prevents young people from receiving a criminal record that can hamper future opportunities. State Police records show that marijuana made up 52 percent of the 49,920 drug arrests in 2010. According to Drug Policy Alliance, an organization dedicated to drug law reform, the following are a few of the serious consequences New Jersey residents face when arrested for marijuana possession:
- Employers can ask about past arrests in New Jersey, even ones that didn’t lead to a conviction. That’s illegal in New York.
- No right to vote while serving a sentence for a misdemeanor marijuana conviction.
- Anyone convicted of a drug offense in New Jersey will have their drivers license suspended between six months and two years.
- Under the federal Higher Education Act of 1998, conviction for drug offenses can potentially result in denial of student financial aid.
But even if New Jersey decriminalizes marijuana, Rosean Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey branch, said the expense of tickets for possession could still lead to arrests, particularly for New Jersey’s poorest residents.
“One thing we’ve been concerned about the marijuana decriminalization bill is it could end up being like New York, where even though it’s just a fine and a ticket, you end up with a net widening. Now it just becomes easy to write a bunch of those tickets,” said Scotti, who added, “If, for instance, you don’t pay it, they can put out a bench warrant for you and then you have failure to appear in court against you. It can spiral out of control.”
The other issue surrounding decriminalization is currently a hot button topic in New York City: possession of small amounts of marijuana is not an arrestable offense, unless the marijuana is displayed or smoked in “open view.” In open view possession of a small amount of marijuana becomes a misdemeanor. If an officer uses the Terry stop tactic, more commonly known as a “stop and frisk,” and asks a person to empty their pockets, the obliging person is forced to present their contents, even marijuana they may be carrying. That explains the high number of arrests for possession of marijuana. The vast majority of people arrested in New York City are young men of color in New York City. This tactic of asking people stopped for alleged suspicious behavior to “empty their pockets” is illegal, but most people aren’t aware of that and are inclined to obey the commands of an officer.
NYPD Raymond Kelly sent a memo to the entire department in Sept. 2011 stating that a “crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana.” However, 2011 saw the highest number of marijuana arrests in New York City since the last years of the Giuliani administration.
Although there is a great deal of data on stop and frisks in New York, Scotti said it’s much more difficult to access similar statistics for New Jersey.
“The courts are very reluctant,” said Scotti.