Nearly 36,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges in New Jersey in 2016, more than 32,000 of them for marijuana possession. That’s about twice the number of people that live in Asbury Park.
Those charges, mostly for possession of small amounts of marijuana, often have huge impacts on the people arrested. A marijuana conviction can cause people to lose their housing, prevent them from getting financial aid, or even lose their driver’s license.
But the impacts aren’t evenly distributed. Black New Jerseyans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents, despite similar cannabis use, a 2017 American Civil Liberties Union report found.
That’s primarily why Gov. Phil Murphy says he’s pledged to legalize marijuana in the state. He’s called legalization a social justice issue and said that it would come with expungements for many people hit with marijuana convictions.
But as the governor and lawmakers debate marijuana legalization, and expunging marijuana convictions, more and more people in the Garden State are getting arrested for the very thing that could soon be legal.
Despite the push for legal weed, crime data shows that not only does New Jersey arrest more people for marijuana than almost any state, its marijuana arrests have risen faster than every other state in the U.S. and it’s not even close.
From 2015 to 2016, total marijuana arrests in New Jersey jumped nearly 27 percent, from 28,148 arrests to 35,700 arrests, FBI data shows. Arkansas is the next closest, with a nearly 22 percent spike in arrests, but most other states show a modest increase. Nineteen states had fewer marijuana arrests in 2016 than the previous year.
New Jersey has the second highest marijuana arrest rate in the country, behind only Wyoming, and it has the third highest total number of weed-related arrests, following Texas and New York. Those numbers are based on 2016 FBI crime data, analyzed byJon Gettman, criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia.
“It’s astounding and it’s evidence that our war on marijuana is not going to end unless we put an end to it,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel at the advocacy group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “It’s shocking how rapidly these numbers are increasing and it’s incumbent upon us to do something.”
Law enforcement officials say that New Jersey has a lot of marijuana possession arrests for two main reasons: The state has a dense population and a large number of police officers.
Census data shows that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, while the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the state is among those with the most police per capita.
When a lot of police oversee tightly packed people, the result is more police encounters, said John Zebrowski, chief of the Sayreville Police Department. And more police-citizen encounters mean more marijuana possession arrests.
“We probably have the highest rate of police-citizen encounters in the country,” Zebrowski said, adding that marijuana possession arrests most often start with an unrelated encounter, like a traffic stop.
NJ Advance Media reached out to the New Jersey State Police several times for comment on this story, but the organization did not respond to questions.
Zebrowski also said he thinks today’s marijuana is a lot skunkier than it used to be, leading to more arrests.
“Today’s marijuana is so strong in odor that in any police encounter when someone has marijuana it will immediately be detected,” he said. But New Jersey’s marijuana likely isn’t any more stinky than weed in other states, so Zebrowski’s reasoning doesn’t explain the huge surge in marijuana arrests unique to Jersey.
Nick Bucci, a retired State Police officer now with Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group that advocates for reforms in criminal justice and drug policy, said New Jersey’s spike in marijuana arrests is at least partly due to the previous governor.
Former Gov. Chris Christie “had this thing in his craw about marijuana and he pushed for those arrests,” Bucci said, adding that Christie’s firm opposition to marijuana was implicit instruction for police across the state to step up arrests.
While the ACLU’s 2017 report found that blacks in New Jersey were much more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, that was based on arrest data from 2013. The racial breakdown of the 2016 arrest data is not yet available.
Houenou said she thinks the story remains the same.
“Even though our laws are written to be race neutral, they’re not enforced that way,” she said. “There’s a broader policing culture that we still need to change.”
Cory Booker, one of New Jersey’s U.S. senators, agrees.
“It’s not only the second highest arrest rate, but it’s also grievously disproportionately along racial lines and economic lines,” Booker said about the state’s marijuana arrests. “This just another reason, I think, why legalizing marijuana in our state would be important, so we have equal justice under the law, and we need to address racial disparities in arrest and incarceration.
“You cannot, should not, talk about legalization if you’re not talking about expungement and if you’re not talking about reinvesting some of the taxes that’s going to come into those communities that have been disproportionately affected by the prohibition against marijuana.”
Booker has introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in the U.S. Senate and a version has also been put forward in the House of Representatives. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders recently signed on as a sponsor of the bill, which proposes ending federal marijuana prohibition and would leave it up to states to determine their own cannabis laws.
New Jersey isn’t waiting for federal action, though, and lawmakers continue the legalization debate in Trenton. The bills being considered all have some provision addressing the state’s sky-high marijuana arrests.
The most common idea in the bills is to allow people with low-level marijuana possession convictions to apply to have their record cleared. Meanwhile, advocates are urging lawmakers to make the expungements automatic, should marijuana be legalized.
Either way, if New Jersey police continue making marijuana arrests at the 2016 rate, tens of thousands more people will be needing an expungement.