New Jersey Promised Us Legal Weed – So Why Are People Still Being Arrested?

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More than two-thirds of New Jerseyans voted to legalize marijuana last year. A provision affirming as much is now written in the New Jersey Constitution effective January 1st. And bills to legalize and tax the possession of up to six ounces of recreational cannabis have been approved by majorities in the state legislature.

That didn’t stop local police from busting New Jersey’s most famous marijuana activist, Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion last week in Wanaque, NJ. He was pulled over while driving his decked-out “Weedmobile” SUV and hit with a slew of marijuna possession charges. As a consequence of having less than 50 grams of marijuana, NJ Weedman said police also seized $9,000 in cash he had on him at the time of the stop:

“I’m Weedman. Am I gonna have some weed on me? Hell, yeah,” he said on his podcast. “I had a little tiny bit of weed, too, that’s how I looked at it…But the worst part about it was they took all the money I had on me.”

Such is the pot predicament in the Garden State, where 2,378 charges against people for possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana were filed in January alone, according to the state judiciary. Meanwhile, two bills that would decriminalize marijuana and establish a marijuana market are sitting on the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who ran for office four years ago vowing to legalize recreational cannabis. So what happened?

Even though the constitutional amendment on marijuana was expected to pass by wide margins, lawmakers didn’t work out the specifics of what legal weed would like until after Election Day. They spent the weeks after November 3rd agreeing to the details: Possession of up to six ounces (that’s a lot) would be legal for those 21 and older; 70 percent of sales taxes and the entirety of a growers fee would be earmarked to communities adversely affected by federal drug policy (for mentoring, legal aid, health care, and other programs); and psychedelic mushrooms would also be decriminalized.

But the decriminalization bill and the regulatory bill conflict on what happens when someone under the legal age of 21 is caught with cannabis. Murphy says he won’t sign the bills until lawmakers address the discrepancy. The deadline to sign the measures initially was last Monday, but legislative leaders allowed for more time—until next Thursday. A hearing on the under-21 question is currently scheduled for Monday.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus are pushing for limited punishment—like a $50 fine and no arrest—for underage users caught with cannabis in order to reduce the amount of contact that young people have with police. There’s also disagreement about whether New Jerseyans should be allowed to grow marijuana at home.

But as Trenton continues to debate the details of legalization, people are still getting busted for the ostensibly legal plant in droves. An Attorney General’s order says prosecutors should adjourn low-level marijuana prosecutions until March, and it’s likely that the 2,300-plus charges for low-level marijuana possession that have been recorded in 2021 will ultimately be dropped. But the fact that arrests are still happening means Black and brown New Jerseyans are still having unnecessary interactions with police, which can be dangerous.

“There are a whole bunch of consequences that emerge just from a police interaction. It doesn’t have to be a prosecution that leads to collateral consequences,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union and a longtime proponent of legalization. “As we know, when police are engaged and interact with the public, any moment can lead to an escalation that leads to tragic outcomes.”

He said one consequence of an arrest is asset forfeiture, when money or property from the person charged is seized by police – which is exactly what happened to NJ Weedman.

NJ Weedman said he’s ready for this fight – he’s known for challenging, and beating, marijuana prohibition laws. He owns Weedman’s Joint in Trenton, just down the block from the Statehouse and across from City Hall, that sells both sandwiches and marijuana. The SUV he was driving when he was pulled over is conspicuous – it’s made to look like a New Jersey State Police vehicle, and has “Pot Trooper” written on the side. But his case nonetheless exemplifies the legal ambiguity surrounding legalization that the Garden State is currently experiencing.

If Murphy works out the disagreements over underage possession and signs the bills, there are still more hurdles: Town officials will have to give the green light for retail outlets to open in their communities, and there will have to be enough supply in the state to meet the requirement that all marijuana sold in New Jersey also has to be grown there.

Those caveats notwithstanding, advocates believe existing medical marijuana providers will add recreational dispensaries to their operations and sell marijuana, legally, by the end of 2021.