On July 24, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a letter to the state’s prosecutors telling them to suspend their marijuana cases until early September. The number of cases is reported to be in the tens of thousands, following a recent increase in arrests. Currently, the New Jersey legislature is considering a legalization bill, and in neighboring New York, legalization seems quite possible after the November election.
The governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, along with two state senators—Steve Sweeney and Nicholas Scutari—have said that the legalization bill may clear its remaining hurdles by September. The governor has announced his support of legalization, with his principal reason being a desire to stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws against African Americans.
The suspension of marijuana prosecutions follows a surge in marijuana arrests in the Garden State. While no official statement has been made regarding this increase, one news story offers several possible reasons. One is that New Jersey is densely populated and has a relatively high number of police officers. This fact, together with the potent smell of marijuana, can account for a higher likelihood of contact with police and arrest if the smell is detected. Another possible reason given is that former governor Chris Christie, who was adamantly opposed to legalization, may have informally asked for an increase in enforcement in anticipation of the likelihood of legalization after his departure. As is true in other states, in New Jersey, African Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Grewal’s letter states:
“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. In the interim, I ask that all municipal prosecutors in New Jersey seek an adjournment until September 4, 2018, or later, of any matter involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court. This adjournment will give my office sufficient time to develop appropriate guidance for prosecutors.”
Grewal’s missive to prosecutors is not the only letter that he has recently written regarding the enforcement of marijuana laws in the state. In another letter dated July 20 and addressed to Jacob “Jake” Hudnut, the chief municipal prosecutor of Jersey City, Grewal informs him that he exceeded his authority in decriminalizing marijuana in the city, saying: “[Y]ou 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.” The day before, Hudnut had issued a memo stating that marijuana was decriminalized in Jersey City. Grewal’s letter to Hudnut also states that Hudnut’s self-proclaimed change to New Jersey’s laws would “result in—not mitigate—disparate treatment of similarly situated offenders.”
Scutari is sponsoring a legalization bill that would include reparative justice for those with marijuana convictions. Expungement of criminal records for some marijuana convictions would be available on application to the court. The bill would allow for “possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana for persons age 21 and over” and would create a “Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure.” In addition, the bill would legalize paraphernalia.
Although the bill’s future was reportedly in doubt as recently as April, Grewal’s letter may be a sign that Scutari’s legalization bill has or soon will have the votes to pass, and that the governor will sign it—possibly as soon as September. Alternatively, Grewal’s July 24 letter may be only what it claims to be: a response to the issues raised by the Hudnut memo, one in particular being the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws in New Jersey.
What do you think? Will Scutari’s legalization bill pass in September? Leave a comment below.