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Op-Ed: Legalizing Marijuana -- A Matter of Civil Rights

There were almost 25,000 arrests for marijuana in 2014, but New Jersey's black residents are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be busted

udi ofer
Udi Ofer

In April, the New Jersey attorney general’s office released the uniform crime statistics for 2014. Buried in the data was a fact that would shock many New Jerseyans: For the second year in a row, New Jersey police made record-breaking arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In 2014, state and local police made 24,689 arrests for marijuana possession, just below the 24,765 arrests made in 2013. In fact, New Jersey police made more arrests for marijuana possession in 2014 than for any other crime that year.

A majority of Americans and New Jerseyans believed marijuana should be legal at the time of those arrests, and a majority of Americans and New Jerseyans believe that still. Gallup has polled this question every year since 1969, when only 12 percent of Americans believed in marijuana legalization. By 2015, that number had soared to 58 percent. A June 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll also found that 58 percent of New Jerseyans support legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana for use by adults.

A marijuana arrest is a serious matter. It can lead to loss of a job, housing, student financial aid, or even custody of children. A person arrested for marijuana possession can end up paying more than $1,100 in fines and even have his driver’s license revoked for six months. And all of this is for an activity that the last 24 years of U.S. presidents have done.

For the ACLU of New Jersey, marijuana legalization is a core civil liberties and civil rights issue. It’s a civil liberties issue because we believe that adults have the freedom to make personal decisions about consuming marijuana, as long as they don’t harm others. The government shouldn’t interfere with this decision made by an adult.

But marijuana legalization is also a key civil rights issue. Studies have shown that whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates. Yet it’s the black community that disproportionately faces the brunt of the enforcement system. Black New Jerseyans are almost three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in the Garden State.

For all of these reasons, along with myriad others, more and more New Jerseyans are supporting marijuana legalization. Last year a new coalition, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR), formed to bring together civil rights advocates, municipal prosecutors, medical doctors, and police officers for the common goal of legalizing marijuana for adults.

A report issued last month by the NJUMR coalition along with New Jersey Policy Perspective found that legalizing marijuana for use by adults aged 21 and older would generate an estimated $300 million in new sales tax revenue. Add this to the $127 million we spend each year enforcing our marijuana possession laws and it quickly adds up. The report rightfully recommended that the new revenue should support communities that have borne the brunt of the government’s war on marijuana. Communities of color, including individuals with past convictions, must be given opportunities to participate in the newly formed marijuana marketplace and reap the benefits that will come from the new tax revenue generated by legalization.

Four states and Washington, D.C. have already legalized marijuana for adult use. It’s time for New Jersey to do the same. Every single day the Legislature refuses to advance legalization, people in New Jersey have their lives destroyed for consuming something the majority of New Jerseyans believe should be legal. Our current laws are a failure; it’s time to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults.

Udi Ofer is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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