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Profile: Prosecutor Makes Unlikely Advocate for Marijuana-Law Reforms

Self-described ‘lifelong conservative’ joins ACLU in fight to ‘legalize it…’ in New Jersey

j.h. barr
J.H. Barr

Who he is: Jon-Henry “J.H.” Barr, Esq. is a lifelong resident of Clark, where he has a private law practice and has been involved with civic affairs since he was elected to fill an unexpired term on the Township Council at age 23. Barr has an undergraduate degree in government from Lehigh University and a law degree from Seton Hall; he served as a clerk for a Superior Court judge in Monmouth County before joining his first practice, in Edison.

In 2001, he was appointed as a municipal prosecutor in Clark, where he still presides over cases at least once a week, and played the same role in nearby Kenilworth from 2008 until earlier this year. His work led to meetings with other municipal prosecutors, many of who shared their frustration over how officials in Trenton created regulations that significantly shaped local proceedings without meaningful input from those directly involved. The New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association was formed in 2005 to give them a voice in the process, and Barr was elected president in 2008.

Why he’s in the news: Barr has recently been quoted in news releases and advocacy materials related to the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform campaign, where he serves as a steering committee member. (He serves as an individual, not as a representative of the prosecutors association, although the association endorsed a resolution in 2014 calling for marijuana legalization, subject to “reasonable regulations.”)

Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the diverse group joined forces last year to advocate for a system in which pot is legally available for adults to purchase, and regulated and taxed by the state -- similar to alcohol sales. NJUMR claims current law “wastes more than $127 million each year on a failed policy” that unfairly punishes poor communities of color without improving public safety. The campaign’s membership makes it unique; the partnership includes physicians and law enforcement officials, in addition to civil rights and community advocates.

On November 16, Barr joined other NJUMR members in Trenton to testify at the first legislative hearing devoted to the subject of legalizing marijuana. Convened by Sen. Nicolas Scutari (D-Union), chair of the Judiciary Committee and a municipal prosecutor in Linden since 2003, the hearing was dedicated to listening to those in favor of reform. Barr said another hearing will be scheduled to allow the opposition a chance to speak. (This opposition includes the county prosecutor’s association, Barr said.)

Why he’s passionate about pot: As a self-described “lifelong Republican, fiscal conservative” and longtime officer of the court, Barr may seem an unlikely advocate for marijuana reform. He traces his awakening to a specific 2013 case, when he prosecuted a 22-year-old woman charged with drug possession when police found a single joint in her car. Questions about the legality of the police search led to months of court motions back and forth, and officers were pulled off their patrols -- sometimes on overtime -- to testify during the trial that followed. Eventually, the judge ruled in Barr’s favor, convicting the devastated young woman. The defendant -- who Barr described as “from all other appearances completely law abiding” -- was forever saddled with a criminal record and Barr himself was exhausted and frustrated.

“I shook my head and said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ I just invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and taxpayer money over a marijuana joint. This is nuts. This is not an efficient expenditure of taxpayer resources,” Barr recalled recently. The whole scenario helped him realize, “Our laws on this issue are simply antiquated, inefficient, outdated, and just wrong.”

What else shaped his view: Barr’s career as a prosecutor is only one factor that influenced his position on marijuana reform. He joined the Clark Volunteer Emergency Squad in 2002 and became certified as an emergency medical technician the following year. As a first responder, he’s seen up close the impact alcohol and drugs have on individuals, their family, and the community. This experience has convinced him that while marijuana is not nearly as intoxicating, addictive, or deadly as alcohol, the current system pushes officials to arrest and prosecute pot users more frequently than drunks.

“The inconsistency smacks me in the face now,” Barr said. While he’s transported countless victims of alcohol abuse, poisoning, and related violence, he added, “I’ve never taken anyone to the hospital for a marijuana overdose.”

(Dr. David Nathan, a psychiatrist who teaches at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and serves as an NJUMR steering committee member, agreed that “It’s not safe for young people and some adults, but overall, marijuana is far less of a threat to public health than alcohol and tobacco.”)

*A personal connection too: Barr said he never expected to be an outspoken advocate for legalizing marijuana, but his professional experiences all pointed toward reform. Even more un-anticipated, he said, were the personal pleas he’s had in recent years. “Hardly a month goes by” that he doesn’t get a call from friends, neighbors, colleagues, even family members who know someone who was arrested with a small amount of pot. He said otherwise upstanding, law-abiding citizens are struggling in the face of laws designed to guard against crack, cocaine, heroin, and other addictive substances.

Barr said that for him, the bottom line is simple. As a lifelong Republican and fiscal conservative, “We are against wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on government programs that do not work and are not necessary,” adding, “and that is the war on drugs.” He continued, “I am more committed to changing the law than ever, because the status quo is a disaster. I’ve even used the word ‘insane.’ I realize those are strong words. But those are accurate words.”

Lilo H. Stainton is an award-winning reporter who covered politics and public policy in New Jersey for more than a decade and later served as press secretary to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. She has also worked as a communications strategist, campaign director, and advocate for coastal protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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