Newark pastor: Legalization of weed must be done right

The Rev. Timothy Levi Jones Guest Columnist

Star Ledger

There is no question that the “War of Drugs” has ultimately been a war on families and communities of color. The criminalization of marijuana in particular has contributed to one of our most pressing civil rights issues of the day, mass incarceration. I am encouraged that the growing recognition of these harms caused by criminalization has led nine states and Washington, D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational use. New Jersey now sits on the precipice of legalization, but it cannot go forward without assurances of a system that is strong, fair and economically beneficial for all citizens of New Jersey. Above all, the harm the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, including Newark, must be healed.

There were almost 25,000 people arrested on marijuana charges in 2015. But even beyond simply an arrest, the results can be tragic for even the possession of a small amount of cannabis. One marijuana cigarette could land you in jail for six months. One marijuana cigarette could mean the loss of your driver’s license and fines over $1,200. If you were a student, just one marijuana cigarette could lose you your student loan; if you were an immigrant, just one marijuana cigarette could mean your deportation. If you lived in public housing, just one marijuana cigarette could mean your eviction.

These punishments are not only draconian but they are enforced in grossly inequitable ways. There is a quantifiable racial imbalance in the enforcement of marijuana laws and you have a civil rights crisis. Black New Jerseyans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate three times greater than our white neighbors, despite similar usage rates. Figures gathered by the ACLU of New Jersey show that as the number of arrests increased over time, so did the racial disparity among those arrests. These arrests are not solving the problem, or even getting the drugs off of the street, as nine out of 10 arrests are of users instead of dealers.

The solution lies in an equitable system of legalized marijuana that accounts for the harm inflicted on people who were pushed into the criminal justice system because of unjust policy. As such, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR), a diverse coalition of New Jerseyans representing law enforcement, civil rights organizations and medical professionals advocates for new marijuana laws that:

Provide for automatic expungement of prior records. No one should continue to be penalized for behavior that will be legal.

Provide a meaningful way for New Jersey’s entrepreneurs and small business people to participate in the legal market.

Provide concrete measures that ensure reinvestment in communities— including our low-income and communities of color that have been the targets of the war on marijuana — such as funding for education, drug treatment and prevention, job training, and reentry services.

Allow people to grow a limited number of plants at home, so that those with limited mobility and/or low incomes can access marijuana, and medical patients can grow the strains they need.

The legalization of marijuana also offers an opportunity for a greatly needed influx of jobs for the community. Any legalization process must ensure that entrepreneurs in all neighborhoods can participate in the new economy. These new job opportunities should be available without barriers posed by excessive licensing fees and outdated criminal conviction restrictions. Furthermore, the estimated $300 million in tax revenues must fund education, drug prevention and justice reinvestment programs, like re-entry and job training, in communities of color disproportionally harmed by our failed marijuana policies.

The war on marijuana has no winners but very clear losers. It has taken a huge toll on communities and people of color. Legalization must advance racial justice— otherwise, we are simply following one failed system with another. Arresting black people at a rate three times higher than white people and saddling disproportionate numbers of African-Americans with criminal records is a failure. Legalization would end unjust arrests, create jobs, increase public safety, generate tax revenue to invest in communities of color and fund projects that help all Garden State residents.

Gov. Phil Murphy supports marijuana legalization and has expressed his commitment to racial justice. The Legislature must send him a bill that advances both.

The Rev. Timothy Levi Jones is pastor of BethanyBaptist Church in Newark.

Legalization must advance racial justice— otherwise, we are simply following one failed system with another.