Cannabis Arrests in New Jersey Haven’t Dropped At All, Despite the Fact Weed Is Legal
Newark police have ignored the attorney general’s memo to deprioritize such cases and are continuing to arrest people for weed as if it were outlawed.
Published on January 27, 2021

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Somewhere along the line, there's been a miscommunication. How else do you explain the number of people currently being arrested for cannabis possession in New Jersey? Isn’t this the state where two-thirds of voters approved Question 1 to officially legalize adult-use cannabis back in November? 

According to University of Illinois professor Justin Leiby’s assessment, which is based on publicly-available data, simple cannabis possession arrests in Newark have climbed 23 percent since the state flipped from red to green. 

That figure measures the number of arrests made in the first 20 days of this year — beginning on January 1, the day cannabis allegedly became legal under Question 1 — compared to the number of people taken into custody for pot possession this time last year. 

The city’s Department of Public Safety did its own analysis, which claims that possession arrests have actually dropped within the same time frame, from 59 arrests in 2020 to 55 in 2021. 

But even a minor drop is difficult to understand when one considers that Gurbir Grewal, the state’s Attorney General, announced to prosecutors in late November that low-level cannabis cases should be deprioritized, a suggestion that was extended in a January 22 memo. 

Some reporters have called this a “polite request.” But when a state’s Attorney General repeatedly calls for police to stop arresting people for pot, aren’t they supposed to listen? Maybe this is where the miscommunication happened. You’d think cops would stop arresting people if they knew their cases wouldn’t go anywhere. (Let’s not forget that 67 percent of the Garden State’s voting population believes that pot should be legal. Ahem.)

Much of the blame for this rests on the fact that Question 1 was regrettably vague on possession limits and how cannabis would be sold. These issues are hindering the implementation of legislation, as lawmakers are just now creating regulatory bills, from industry guidelines to changes in the criminal code — all of which take a while to complete.

Things were looking up on December 17, when legislators managed to approve bills for both decriminalization and commercial regulation, but the pieces of legislation did not get past the desk of Governor Phil Murphy. Why? He wants to be able to prosecute underage New Jerseyites for cannabis possession, which the current decriminalization bill would not allow.

Leiby notes that while the Garden State continues to make menial pot arrests, the number of Illinois prisoners with cannabis sentences, as well as cannabis-related prison admissions, have plummeted this year. New Jersey, on the other hand, is about to face a bottle necking weed possession cases. And Newark officials say there’s not much they can do until new laws are in effect. 

“Until the laws are changed, we have to abide by the current law,” Newark’s public safety director Anthony Ambrose told Marijuana Moment

Leiby seems less willing to abide. “I hope the ACLU, or someone, takes them to court,” he commented

Just know that the country is watching you, New Jersey. 

Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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