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Op-Ed: With the New Year, We Need a New Law to Legalize Marijuana

We must eliminate the unequal and unfair pattern of marijuana possession arrests, particularly the disparately higher rate of arrests of African-Americans

Victor De Luca
Victor DeLuca

The new year is a time for change. Sometimes it’s personal, with resolutions about our health and wellbeing, our families, and our jobs. And sometimes it’s change for our communities. As mayor of Maplewood, change is something I think about when developing goals for the year ahead.

For 2018, there is an important change that we need to make — eliminating the unequal and unfair pattern of marijuana possession arrests, particularly the disparately higher rate of arrests of African-Americans. This change should be on the agenda of all New Jersey’s mayors from urban, suburban, or rural communities.

New Jersey’s black and white residents have similar marijuana usage rates. However, according to a study by the ACLU of New Jersey, African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey than whites in 2013, a 34 percent rise in that disparity since 2000. Also troubling — almost nine out of 10 arrests are for possession, not for distribution. Recreational users, not dealers, are the ones paying the price.

These arrest patterns have serious consequences that fall disproportionately on African-Americans. At a time when the value of a job has never been clearer, an arrest for a marijuana possession can pose significant barriers to employment. An arrest for possession could get you up to six months in jail, loss of your driver’s license, and fees and fines of over $1,200. If you were a student, you could lose your student loan; if you were an immigrant, you could face deportation; and if you lived in public housing, you could face eviction.

Take a closer look at one specific employment obstacle. If you work in one of the 200-plus professions that require licensure in New Jersey, a marijuana possession arrest can result in the loss of your state license and a devastating disruption in your ability to hold a job. This list of occupations and businesses requiring a state license — a 52-page document — includes contractors, beauticians, athletic trainers, and a whole host of professions.

Take the case of Latoya, a home healthcare worker in New Jersey. She was arrested on the least serious charge of possession and paid a fine. What she also got was a suspended business license. She received this draconian punishment for something that almost 60 percent of New Jerseyans think should be legal. So, if the home healthcare aide who lovingly helps look after your aging parents gets busted for as little as a single marijuana cigarette, she could lose her livelihood.

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has called the legalization of marijuana a 2018 priority, and for good reason. But any legislative effort to legalize marijuana must include the expungement of past marijuana conviction records so that the legacy of New Jersey’s historically unfair arrest priorities does not continue into the future, especially in employment.

These disparities in marijuana possession arrests alone are a matter of racial justice that demands immediate attention. Add the effects on people’s ability to earn a living, and the need for change is even more urgent. It is a new year — let’s set a new course by making this commonsense change today.

Mayor Victor DeLuca serves the town of Maplewood.

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