New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has asked all prosecutors in the state to postpone their marijuana cases as state legislators work out a bill to formally decriminalize the drug.
New Jersey voters passed a ballot measure to legalize marijuana on Election Day, but implementing the will of the people has taken some time. Despite some advocates' hope, the state did not have a decriminalization bill ready to go before Election Day, and it is still legal for New Jersey police to arrest people for marijuana possession.
No dispensaries have opened yet, so anyone holding weed (unless it's part of their medical marijuana prescription) could still be charged with possessing "unregulated" marijuana.
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Guidance from Grewal issued Wednesday says that for marijuana cases already in the courts, prosecutors should seek an adjournment until Jan. 25, 2021 - if the only charges are marijuana possession or something related, like possessing a pipe.
"Fairness and justice require that we, as prosecutors, not move forward with charges that the Legislature may foreclose in the near future," Grewal wrote.
In cases that may involve other crimes but also include marijuana possession charges, he told prosecutors to "use their discretion." The prosecutors could either postpone the entire case, or dismiss the possession charges and move forward with the rest of the case.
The guidance issued Wednesday does not let drug dealers off the hook, and does not allow delays for charges of possession with intent to distribute.
Legislators in Trenton are still working out how many dispensaries will be licensed in the state, whether or not to impose an excise tax (instead of just state and town taxes), and how they could direct proceeds toward communities of color.
The justice issue
One group that advocated for the ballot measure this year supported Grewal's decision but urged the Garden State to make a change beyond just the courts.
In a statement Wednesday, New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union head Amol Sinha called the guidance "a welcome development" but said the state needed to end police arrests for possession as well.
"While adjourning prosecutions for pending charges is a step in the right direction, arrests for marijuana possession are still happening daily," Sinha wrote. "The Legislature must immediately pass legislation to decriminalize cannabis to fully end prosecutions, eliminate arrests, and limit police interactions with community members, which disproportionately impact Black and brown New Jerseyans, who are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white residents. Until decriminalization is enacted and in place, we need further guidance to deprioritize marijuana-related arrests statewide, and for police chiefs to take steps to stop marijuana arrests within their municipalities. Then, we will be closer to equitable and racially just legalization, which is what New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved."
Ahead of Election Day, prominent figures like Gov. Phil Murphy and many others framed the marijuana ballot measure as a move toward social justice.
But - like the other legislative details about licenses, taxes, and where the revenue will go - the decriminalization of the drug has not been signed into law yet, and legalization may have added to confusion.
"Some may misinterpret or misunderstand the consequences of the
Amendment and possess or use marijuana right away, assuming that it is lawful," Grewal wrote Nov. 4, before reminding cops they had "broad discretion" when making arrests for low-level pot charges.