What happens to low-level marijuana offenses while lawmakers debate legal weed industry?
Recreational marijuana will be legal in New Jersey on Jan. 1, and police departments and prosecutors around the state are looking ahead to a major change.
But what will happen to the up to 100 arrests per day that police make for marijuana-related crimes?
“I’ve looked at how other states have handled this, and they’ve said the same thing – that it is a big change in the way their communities look at these issues,” says Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has ordered low-level marijuana prosecutions be put on hold until at least Jan. 25. But in an order the day after Election Day, Grewal said, “...law enforcement officers and prosecutors are reminded of their broad discretion when handling low-level marijuana offenses and are encouraged to exercise it consistent with existing guidance from this office."
Zebrowski says that there is some concern that the hundreds of police departments around the state may interpret that order differently.
“We're certainly concerned of that. However, I don't believe that that is the case, I think our attorney general...I know our attorney general has had a lot of communication with us. So, we continue to collaborate. I don't believe there's a miscommunication or misunderstanding on that,” the chief says.
Zebrowski says that his office will now consult with local prosecutors before charging anyone in a low-level marijuana case.
Lawmakers in Trenton must pass a bill before the legal marijuana industry in New Jersey can begin. And while Democratic leaders like Senate President Steve Sweeney say an excise tax on marijuana should go to communities impacted by the war on drugs, police departments say the move will cost money in re-training.
“We've been working to try to make sure our legislators understand that this is a costly process,” Zebrowski says. “Take as much time as possible and put together as comprehensive of legislation as possible to show that you've learned from some of the mistakes of the other states.”
Senate Democrats have proposed a state constitutional amendment that would split the revenue from the legal marijuana industry. Under the proposal, 70% of the sales tax and 100% of the excise tax will go to social justice reforms in poorer communities. The other 30% of the sales tax will go to staff the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission and to local police departments.