Cannabis is poised to become legal in our home state of New Jersey. Many associations, such as the Drug Policy Alliance and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, have been lobbying for reform for years. It appears that the political stars are now aligned as well. Between advocates in the state legislature and Phil Murphy’s election to Chris Christie’s former seat, support is now coming from Trenton and Drumthwacket. Some suggest that the legislature will vote on recreational cannabis for adults within the new governor’s first 100 days in office.

However, legalizing cannabis is not just about reviving a tired economy and ensuring personal freedoms. There are decades of injustice which cannot be forgotten as new policy is formulated and regulations are developed. The issues are deep, complicated and far-reaching. They go beyond simply “flipping the switch” from illegal to legal.

That’s why we were excited to attend a talk by Meagan Glaser, Deputy State Director of Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) New Jersey office. The talk, hosted by Women Grow’s Newark chapter on Dec. 12, was an eye-opening look into the issues of racial disparity in drug-related arrests and the importance of acknowledging them in New Jersey’s pending legalization bill. More importantly, it armed us with information needed to educate New Jerseyans on the nuances of the legal cannabis process.

Facts and figures: important numbers to know

The DPA New Jersey office provided the audience with some sobering, yet crucial, statistics:

  • More than 24,000 people are arrested in New Jersey each year for marijuana possession.
  • Close to half of all arrests made for drug-related offenses in New Jersey — 43.4% — are for marijuana possession.
  • As of 2010, it cost more than $125 million per year to arrest New Jerseyans for marijuana possession. That figure has increased since, with estimates topping more than $140 million.
  • African-Americans are arrested at rates three times higher than whites for these offenses in New Jersey, although drug usage rates are similar among races. In six of New Jersey’s 21 counties, that figure jumps to five times higher.
  • The collateral consequences go beyond the arrest. Those with marijuana possession arrests in their criminal history struggle to secure housing, employment, immigration status and many other privileges others enjoy.

How, not when: legalizing cannabis with care

If legalization isn’t approached carefully, those with possession arrests on their records could be excluded from future opportunity. For example, if a rule prevents those with criminal records from working in the legal cannabis industry, many thousands of New Jerseyans, many of whom are minorities, would automatically be barred from the industry. To see hundreds of thousands left out of a legal industry while those without records capitalize on the same actions is maddening as a bystander and a hellish reality for those who live the experience every day. 

What can be done to ensure that those who have been disenfranchised can participate when cannabis becomes legal in the Garden State? According to Glaser, the Drug Policy Alliance advocates for several bill provisions which would help right these wrongs, three of which we highlight below:

  • Protections for those with drug-related criminal records. Those with drug-related offenses on their records should not be barred from gaining employment in the cannabis industry.
  • Establish a path for minorities and small businesses to obtain licenses. Charging exorbitant fees for licenses excludes an entire class of individuals whose families and communities could benefit by participating in the new industry.
  • Expunge criminal records of individuals with marijuana-related offenses. Once the crime is no longer a crime, there is no reason to have such a damaging conviction follow individuals for the rest of their lives.

While we are ecstatic about impending cannabis legalization in New Jersey and in other states across the country, running to the finish line could result in a bill which does not include the right provisions to address decades of bad policy. The cannabis business community can advocate for policies which would help remedy the horrific effects of the War on Drugs. The Drug Policy Alliance recommends calling your state legislator, writing letters to the editor, sharing the word on social media and even testifying in Trenton.

It will take months or even a year or two to get the details right after a vote to legalize, but the community overall will be better off for it. For more information or to get involved in Drug Policy Alliance’s New Solutions marijuana reform campaign, visit www.drugpolicy.org/new-jersey or add your name to the petition.