Last week, Jersey City became the first New Jersey municipality to decriminalize low-level cannabis possession, but state officials immediately interceded to shut this new policy down. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and municipal prosecutor Jake Hudnut held a press conference last Thursday to announce that they were decriminalizing minor marijuana possession and use, effective immediately. The next day, NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal stepped in and announced that the new policy was void, as Hudnut did not have the legal authority to supercede state drug laws.
Hudnut sent a memo to his assistant prosecutors, advising them that five different cannabis crimes should no longer be considered criminal offenses. The prosecutor wrote that these crimes — minor possession, possession while in a motor vehicle, being under the influence, use or possession of drug paraphernalia, and loitering to buy or sell pot — should now be punished by either a fine of up to $50 or five hours of community service. Before this policy, any of these crimes could land an offender in jail for as long as six months.
"We feel that while New Jersey is having the conversation about legalization, it is unfair to continue to burden people with misdemeanors, or what New Jersey calls disorderly persons offense, convictions and the collateral consequences that come with those convictions," Hudnut said at the press conference, NJTV News reports. The prosecutor explained that anyone busted for these minor pot offenses was at risk of losing or being unable to obtain a student loan, a driver's license, a job, or housing. Even the most minor cannabis offenses can land an individual in prison with a longer sentence than many rapists or murderers receive.
"So we're adding our voice to the conversation in New Jersey," Hudnut continued. "We're saying while New Jersey debates legalization, we are going to address the racial inequality of marijuana enforcement. And, at the end of the day, I think we're going to save resources for Jersey City. Prosecution is costly. It's estimated that prosecuting marijuana alone costs the state of New Jersey $1 billion every ten years."
Mayor Fulop explained that the new policy was not a open license allowing any Jersey City resident to freely smoke up in public, and that police would "use their discretion" while continuing to make pot-related arrests. Still, the mayor lauded Hudnut's decision, telling reporters that this is "probably the first time the city has had a prosecutor that has been really proactive thinking about policies and how they really impact the entire city," the Jersey Journal reports.
Not everyone in the state was so pleased with the city's decision to decriminalize, however. Last Friday, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote a letter to Hudnut telling him that his decriminalization memorandum "is void and has no effect." Grewal said that his office "takes no position on the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana," but advised Hudnut that "as a municipal prosecutor, you do not have the legal authority to decriminalize marijuana or otherwise refuse to criminally prosecute all marijuana-related offenses in the municipal courts of Jersey City."
Grewal wrote that the new policy was in violation of state criminal law, and ordered Hudnut to "prosecute all offenses within your jurisdiction in accordance with your statutory duties as a municipal prosecutor." Regardless of the Attorney General's letter, city officials intend to go forward with their new policy. In an interview on Friday, Hudnut said he would stick to his decision, adding that "people hailed before the municipal court of Jersey City should not leave that court with misdemeanor convictions for simple possession of marijuana."
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Fulop released a statement explaining that he found it "baffling why [the state government] would try and enforce rules that are counter to everything they have previously stated publicly," the Jersey Journal reports. "We know that court rules gives prosecutor the discretion to amend or dismiss charges as they see fit and decriminalization is the right thing to do as we shouldn't continue a policy of creating records and ruining a person's future over small quantities of marijuana."
The issue at hand shines a light on the Garden State's very divided view on cannabis. The Attorney General's anti-cannabis stance is strikingly opposed to that of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been working hard to fully legalize pot this year. The governor's very public push for legal retail sales has set off sparks of support for legalization throughout the region. The New York Department of Health just released a report advocating legalization, and even former cannabis opponent Governor Andrew Cuomo is beginning to come around on the issue. In Pennsylvania, the state Auditor General just released a report projecting that the state could rake in nearly $600 million a year from a taxed and regulated adult-use market.
A majority of New Jersey lawmakers still remain opposed to legal weed, however, raising concerns that New York and Pennsylvania may actually beat the Garden State to the punch. "New York getting into the driver seat on this would pull away from the benefits that New Jersey would be able to realize," cannabis attorney Daniel McKillop said to NJ Advance Media.
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Despite lawmakers' failure to pass a legalization bill this year, Murphy is still "committed to working with the Legislature to legalize adult-use marijuana the right way, one that makes the state fairer, prioritizes the safety of New Jersey residents, and ensures that some of the economic benefits go the communities hardest hit by the War on Drugs," his press aide Alyana Alfaro said in a statement.