A group of religious leaders and advocates in the state met Wednesday to discuss a component of marijuana legalization to consider: social and racial justice.
With about 24,000 people arrested each year in the state in connection with marijuana possession, African-Americans are three times more likely to be among the arrested, said Roseanne Scotti, the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
The panel that met at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville concluded with the idea that marijuana legalization shouldn’t just be around ending prohibition — the focus should be on equity and fairness, panelists said.
“Marijuana legalization is a social justice issue,” Scotti said. “Some people don’t understand just how damaging a marijuana arrest and conviction really is.”
The forum was hosted by the church, along with the Drug Policy Alliance, the Mainland and Atlantic City chapters of the NAACP and the Coalition for a Safe Community.
Members of the panel discussed components to consider surrounding legalization, such as where revenue would be directed, prioritizing revenue to communities that have been impacted by marijuana prohibition and to make sure there’s equity among the industry.
The Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III, pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pleasantville, talked about the structural issues surrounding the prohibition of marijuana and the effect it’s had on communities of color.
He called marijuana prohibition the “sin of the state” and that communities have been “unjustly stigmatized and unjustly criminalized” with it.
“The reality is that the only gate that marijuana has opened has been the gate to the prisons,” Francois said.
The panel also discussed how to address reparations for people who have already been affected by marijuana prohibition.
Francois said while legalization wouldn’t provide an immediate solution to criminal justice reform, there must be advocacy for things like immediate release for people who are already imprisoned, expungement of records for past offenses and implementing incentives for minority entrepreneurs.
The Rev. Timothy Jones, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church of Newark, said legalizing marijuana could help to regulate it and perhaps limit illegal use and keep it out of the hands of youth.
Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, also the president of the NAACP, moderated the discussion and said legislation should consider inequities among communities of color before moving forward.
“If there is to be marijuana legislation and legalization, there must be a social justice consideration,” he said.