Black People Far More Likely to be Arrested for Marijuana Possession in NJ, ACLU Study Finds

Groups say legalization is a civil rights issue that disproportionately affects people of color
Credit: Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash
The report ranks New Jersey 25th among the states for racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.

Black people are three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana in New Jersey than whites, and the disparity has increased over the past 10 years, according to a new national report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The study, covering 2010-2018, found about 900 arrests per 100,000 people for New Jersey blacks by the end of the study period compared with less than 300 for whites, even though the two racial groups use marijuana at about the same rate. Nationally, black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession, which represents some 90% of marijuana-related arrests.

Legalizing marijuana would help to end a pattern of racism that has hurt black and Hispanic people, the ACLU said, urging all states to begin to legalize or decriminalize use of the drug as 11 states and the District of Columbia have now done.

“The question no longer is whether the U.S. should legalize marijuana — it should — or whether marijuana legalization is about racial equity — it is,” the group said in a 110-page report titled “A Tale of Two Countries,” released on Monday. It said New Jersey is 25th among states in a ranking of racial disparities for marijuana-related arrests.

As states consider releasing nonviolent inmates to slow the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the ACLU also said that decriminalizing marijuana could reduce the prison population or prevent it from growing further.

A ‘road map’ for lawmakers

“This report could provide a road map to governors, prosecutors, judges, and others across the country to take steps to save lives,” the ACLU said.

On April 10, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order allowing the state Department of Corrections to temporarily release under house arrest inmates who are over 60 or who have underlying medical conditions that put them especially at risk from infection. Those serving sentences for serious crimes like murder or sexual assault are not eligible for the program.

The civil rights organization said little has changed since its previous report on the issue — “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” — in 2013, which found that millions of people had been arrested for possessing the drug between 2001 and 2010.

“Disturbingly, too much has remained unchanged in the past decade despite several states having reformed marijuana policy,” the report said.

Although the number of arrests for possession dropped by 18%, there were still 6.1 million arrests over the study period, some 700,000 of which were in 2018 alone, said the report, which was based on data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Urging legalization

The ACLU urged states to legalize the drug, and in the process address the harms that it said have been “selectively aimed” at the black and Hispanic communities through arrests, incarceration, criminal records and job loss over the years.

In the New Jersey Legislature, the Senate shelved a bill that would have legalized the possession and personal use of marijuana, and set up a government office to tax and regulate it, in March after being approved by the Assembly. The question of whether to legalize it will instead be presented to the voters in a ballot question this November.

The call for legalization is being supported by the New Jersey branch of NAACP, which sees it as a civil rights issue because black people are disproportionately affected, said Safeer Quraishi, a spokesman for the local chapter.

“The only reason a civil rights organization would be involved — a black male is three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use while the usage rate for everybody across the board is pretty much the same,” he said.

Quraishi attributed the continued racial disparity in the arrest rates to “over-policing in black neighborhoods.” He said a white 18-year-old from a wealthy neighborhood is likely to get no more than a warning if he is caught with marijuana while a young black man is more likely to become a victim of “institutional racism on the part of the police.”

The New Jersey State Police and the Attorney General’s Office both declined to comment.

Within New Jersey, the highest racial disparity was reported in Hunterdon County where black people were 13.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, the data showed. The disparity was 9.3 times in Ocean County and 7.7 times in neighboring Sussex County, the report said.