TRENTON — New Jersey just quietly moved to decriminalize marijuana, at least for the rest of the summer.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal on Tuesday requested all municipal prosecutors adjourn all marijuana offenses until Sept. 4 as his office develops “appropriate guidance” with the meeting of a working group, including prosecutors and others.
“By the end of August, I intend to issue a statewide directive concerning the scope and appropriate use of prosecutorial discretion in marijuana-related offenses in municipal court,” Grewal wrote in a memo to municipal prosecutors in all 21 counties.
That doesn’t mean marijuana suspects — already facing charges or in the near future — are off scot-free. Greal’s memo does not ask police to stop making marijuana arrests and his group hasn’t even met yet — so it’s premature to suggest that prosecutions will be suspended indefinitely.
The move comes less than a week after a back-and-forth between Grewal and Jersey City officials, who announced their own plans to decriminalize weed — charging those caught possessing weed with fines violations akin to a traffic ticket and dismissing others.
In a scolding letter sent the next day, Grewal told Jersey City municipal prosecutor Jake Hudnut that he did not have the “legal authority” to decriminalize weed. But the two sides met yesterday, resulting in Grewal’s memo issued Tuesday morning, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said in a news release.
“This is a huge win for Jersey City, the state of New Jersey and, most importantly, the people who would have been impacted by the creation of a criminal record due to as simple marijuana arrest,” he said.
Next stop, legal weed?
Progress toward New Jersey marijuana legalization, at one point anticipated to happen as soon as July 1, slowed down during budget talks last month but is expected to heat back up near the end of the summer.
While a number of prominent Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, support legal weed, it faced considerable backlash from legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Murphy’s administration had previously penciled in $60 million from weed sales — to adults 21 and over — anticipated to begin in January 2019. Instead, Murphy and his aides have focused on expanding medical marijuana access to people with medical conditions such as chronic pain.
“If you’re going to do it, and the state can earn some money, let’s do it a smart way,” Murphy told reporters after a bill signing in Long Branch last week. “This is one where we all want to do it, but we want to do it right. There’s a lot of harmony to try to do it sooner rather than later, but we have to do it right.”
Some of those opponents, particularly a bloc of black lawmakers from urban communities, have called for decriminalization as a compromise.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, lead sponsor of the New Jersey marijuana legalization bill, said Grewal’s actions should help boost momentum toward passing a legalization bill before September.
“I think we can get something passed this summer. I hope,” said Scutari, who is also the municipal prosecutor in Linden.
But there is some concern over redundancy, Scutari said. Lawmakers generally agree that, once the drug becomes legal, those with convictions for low-level marijuana offenses should have them expunged from their criminal record.
“Why spend time on these prosecutions when we’re just going to expunge them anyway?” Scutari asked.
During his gubernatorial campaign last year, Murphy made legal weed a major campaign platform, citing statistics that African Americans are twice as likely to be prosecuted for marijuana offenses as whites, despite similar usage rates.
Speaking at a school funding bill signing on Tuesday, Murphy declined to say whether he endorses the Attorney General’s decision. But he reiterated his opposition to decriminalization.
“You think it’s a step in the right direction. It actually leaves the business in the hands of the bad guys. Your kids are exposed. It’s not regulated. It’s not taxed,” he said, building on comments he made to reporters after a bill signing last week.
Murphy said he intends to work with legislative leaders toward legalization of adult use marijuana “sooner rather than later” as well as opening up the state’s medical marijuana program.
“I’m all in,” he said, but added that “we have some more tweaks we’ve got to accomplish.”
In a statement, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Executive Director Amor Sinha said Grewal’s letter was a “step forward for New Jersey that should bring us closer to reforming our marijuana laws and ultimately righting the wrongs of unjust marijuana enforcement.
“We must pump the brakes on marijuana arrests and prosecutions, and engage in a serious critical examination of how we handle the tens of thousands of marijuana arrests we make each year. By directing prosecutors to pause adjudication of marijuana cases, this letter starts that process,” Sinha said.
By the numbers
In 2016, the law enforcement agencies in New Jersey made 32,263 arrests for marijuana possession, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That amounted to 7.4 percent of the 430,818 arrests in New Jersey for everything from murder to disorderly conduct.
The 2016 pot possession arrests in New Jersey jumped 30 percent from 2015’s tally of 24,866.
Bergen County was the top county in New Jersey in 2016 with 3,681 marijuana possession arrests. Monmouth stood close behind with 3,351. Those are the arrests made by all law enforcement agencies in a given county, including the state police.
Rural Sussex County logged the least, arresting 222 people for pot possession in 2016.
Law enforcement agencies in Monmouth County made 37,762 arrests in 2016. Some 9.4 percent of them were marijuana possession arrests.
In June, judiciary officials said prosecutors have obtained more than 400,000 marijuana-related convictions since 2008. Lawmakers suggested that convictions for all but the most serious trafficking crimes would be expunged if marijuana is made legal in New Jersey.
“As the state Legislature charts a course towards legalization of marijuana for adult use, it only makes sense that municipalities would begin attempting to undo the harms of prohibition that have ravaged communities – particularly communities of color – throughout the state,” he said.
New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Scott Rudder called the move “great and welcomed news for the state.
“The Attorney General and Murphy Administration’s action are a huge leap forward in the ongoing effort to bring legal recreational cannabis and expansion of medical cannabis to New Jersey,” Rudder said. “Coupled with continued progress in the Legislature, there is renewed hope that legalization and expansion will occur sooner rather than later.”