To thundering applause from millions of residents and thousands of defendants, New Jersey’s attorney general recently announced an immediate adjournment of all pot-related cases in municipal courts across the state, until September at the very least. The letter, obtained exclusively by New Jersey Advance Media, is a sort of directive for prosecutors.
Gurbir Grewal, State Attorney General, requested in writing “that all municipal prosecutors in New Jersey seek an adjournment until September 4, 2018, or later, of any matter involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court.” He explains his motives for this move as his office needing time to develop “appropriate guidance” for prosecutors. It seems legalization is imminent.
However, this statement by the Attorney General did not say whether arrests for possession of pot would be on hold too. Meanwhile, on Monday, a source within the state Senate told NJ Advance Media that a bill to legalize cannabis recreationally, sponsored by state Senator Nick Scutari, D-Union, who is also a prosecutor for the city of Linden, would reach the Senate in September, as well.
If the Senate passes this bill, the two actions combined would effectively, and permanently, end all prosecution of cannabis possession in New Jersey. To date, nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have liberal laws for adult-use, decriminalizing marijuana entirely. However, more than 50 localities in a dozen or so states either have enacted laws to decriminalize minor pot offenses partially or fully.
For New Jersey, the directive to prosecutors has wide implications for its courts and for residents themselves. Back in May, New Jersey Cannabis Insider reported that, of the almost 36,000 folks facing weed-related charges in 2016, more than 32,000 were for possession of minor quantities of weed. Behind Wyoming, New Jersey arrests more people for cannabis than any other state.
It also had the highest increase in pot-related arrest rates between 2015 and 2016. Convictions for even minor possession charges can result in offenders losing financial aid, their driver’s licenses, and even their homes. This stay of prosecutions comes after an interesting week of contradictory announcements issued by prosecutor Jake Hudnut, of Jersey City, and the office of the Attorney General itself.
Last week, Hudnut, the newly installed prosecutor for Jersey City, announced that his office would attempt to downgrade some pot charges to non-criminal offenses, try to get low-level pot charges dismissed outright, and divert defendants with signs of addiction and previous drug arrests to the city’s community court.
However, almost immediately, the office of the Attorney General responded with its own contradiction, warning Hudnut that “you do not have the legal authority to decriminalize marijuana or otherwise refuse to criminally prosecute all marijuana-related offenses in the municipal courts of Jersey City,” explaining that such actions could only be taken by Legislature.
The incitement in Jersey City came to an impasse when Steve Fulop, Mayor of Jersey City, backed Hudnut in a tweet on July 20, stating, “We respect the letter, but do not agree.” According to a source, a meeting between Grewal, Hudnut, and Hudson County prosecutor Esther Suarez occurred on Monday at the satellite offices of the Bergen County prosecutor in Paramus.
While Hudnut was fighting for effective decriminalization, Suarez was arguing for a more hardline approach, the source, who was familiar with the talks, alleged. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not make herself immediately available for comment. On Tuesday, in an emailed statement, Hudnut praised Grewal’s move, but implied that he was still going to push for pot reform.
“In adjourning all marijuana cases across New Jersey while a directive is prepared, Attorney General Grewal has put himself at the national forefront of progressive prosecutors,” Hudnut wrote. “I am looking forward to working closely with him in the coming weeks on this directive, as well as on other issues affecting all of our state’s municipal courts.”
At an unrelated press conference on funding schools, held in Cliffside Park, on Tuesday, the governor did not answer a question about whether arrests for pot possession would continue after the Attorney General made his lettered announcement. “I will tell you what we want the final product to be, and we were just doing some business walking in here, which is adult use legalization, sooner rather than later.”
That was the voice of Murphy, who was gesturing to Sweeney, the Senate president, behind him. “I am all in,” he said. Governor Phil Murphy supported federal legislation in June to stop enforcement of anti-weed laws in states that have legalized it, and has been advocating for New Jersey to legalize by year’s end. Efforts to rush adult-use legalization by tying it to medical marijuana failed earlier this summer.
However, now lawmakers in Trenton are under skyrocketing pressure to legalize, particularly as a new study released recently, and commissioned by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, just recommended that New York legalize promptly. That report, by the New York Health Department, claimed the benefits of legalizing marijuana vastly outnumber any potential risks.