TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey prosecutors cannot categorically decriminalize cannabis, though they can use discretion when pursuing such cases, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018, in newly published guidance.
The nearly nine-page guidance for municipal prosecutors comes as the Democratic-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy consider legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.
It also aims to address any unevenness in how the state’s cannabis laws were being prosecuted across the state. Jersey Cityannounced it would decriminalize marijuana earlier in 2018.
“Municipal prosecutors cannot decriminalize conduct that the Legislature has criminalized,” Grewal said. “They cannot adopt blanket policies of non-prosecution. But municipal prosecutors can and should strive to ensure that individual justice is done in individual cases.”
A message left with the Jersey City prosecutor was not immediately returned.
The new document comes after Grewal, who was appointed in 2018 by Murphy to be the state’s top law enforcement officer, ordered a pause in cannabis prosecutions in July 2018.
That order came in light of the Jersey City prosecutor’s decision to decriminalize cannabis in the state’s second-biggest city.
The new guidance came about after a review of the issue by prosecutors and stakeholders, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and elected officials.
Under the guidance, prosecutors can’t adopt a wholesale policy of refusing to seek cannabis convictions. But the guidance says they may use discretion in each case.
The documents spells out that a lack of evidence will usually be the basis for dropping a complaint, but it also allows for prosecutors to consider the impact of “adverse collateral consequence,” such as the impact of a conviction on a defendant’s job, for example.
Advocates fear continued racial disparities
Supporters of marijuana legalization said the new document did not come as a surprise.
Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the decriminalization advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, called the guidance “well-intended,” but worried enforcement could unfavorably affect black residents in the state.
“Despite today’s announcement, racial disparities in marijuana arrests will no doubt persist,” Scotti said.
Kevin Sabet, the founder of an anti-legalization group called New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, called the new guidance “commonsense” and said there should be a bipartisan approach to decriminalization of marijuana.
Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said the governor “fully supports” the new guidance and noted that Murphy has said legalization is a “critical step in eliminating racial disparities.”
Grewal’s guidance comes as New Jersey pushes to become the 10th state to legalize recreational cannabis. Murphy campaigned on a promise to legalize the drug, primarily for social justice reasons, he has said. The Legislature is working on legislation to authorize cannabis for people older than 21, as well as to tax marijuana, but the issue has been slow-moving since Murphy took office Jan. 16, 2018.
He succeeded Republican Gov. Chris Christie, an ardent opponent of marijuana legalization, on the grounds that it leads to higher levels of more dangerous drug use.
Grewal’s July 2018 memo asking prosecutors to pause their cases until this latest guidance was drafted was set to expire Sept. 4, 2018. Grewal said Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, that the expiration date was still in effect.