Pubdate: Mon, 23 Nov 2015
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2015 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Jan Hefler, Inquirer Staff Writer


Nationwide, the Numbers Have Dropped. Some Critics Point to a 
Crackdown Spurred by Governor.

As public acceptance of marijuana use grows in the United States, 
nationwide arrests for simple possession of pot have dropped in 
recent years. New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

Marijuana arrests in the state jumped 10 percent in 2012 and 2013, 
according to the latest New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Reports.

In fact, the 24,765 arrests made for possessing small amounts of 
marijuana in 2013 is the highest number in 20 years, and nearly 
double the amount in 1993, when the state's population was 12 percent 
less, based on state police statistics and an analysis by the ACLU of 
New Jersey. In the five years prior to 2013, arrests had hovered around 22,000.

The numbers were highlighted at a historic state Senate Committee 
hearing on pot legalization held in Trenton last week.

Udi Ofer, executive director of the state's ACLU chapter, testified 
at the Trenton hearing that the increasing arrests are a concern 
especially since he said studies show three times as many African 
Americans as whites are charged with simple possession, which is 50 
grams or less. Studies also show the usage rates of the drug by both 
groups are the same, he said.

When asked his view on the 10 percent increase in the arrest rate, he 
said in an interview Thursday that he doubts "anyone knows the exact 
answer, but it's a point of concern. ... It coincides with a governor 
who has taken an incredibly harsh tone on marijuana use." Ofer said 
that Gov. Christie, a Republican, has said on the presidential 
campaign trail that "if he were to become president, he would arrest 
people in Colorado or Washington or other states that legalize 
marijuana, and that sets a tone and trickles down to law enforcement."

Chris Goldstein, who sits on the board of PhillyNORML and is a marijuana blogger, also sees Christie as promoting a 
marijuana crackdown. "Christie is the most vocal marijuana 
prohibitionist in America right now. ... His rhetoric obviously 
hasn't been lost on the police captains of New Jersey," he said.

In an email, Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, questioned any link 
between the arrest numbers and Christie's marijuana stance, calling 
it a "harebrained theory."

The spike in marijuana arrests, which began two years into Christie's 
tenure in office, could have implications for his presidential bid as 
the mood of the country swings towards wider acceptance of cannabis 
and against incarceration for marijuana possession. A Gallup poll 
last month found 58 percent of Americans nationwide favor 
legalization for adults, while a Rutgers-Eagleton poll in June showed 
the same percentage of New Jerseyans support it.

Nationwide, there were about 750,000 marijuana arrests in 2012, the 
latest figures available, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a 
national coalition that lobbies for reform of drug laws and 
legalization of marijuana.

Jon Gettman, a Shenandoah University professor who has studied 
marijuana policy issues and has analyzed FBI and other statistics, 
said the decline nationwide began in 2007. That year there were 
873,000 marijuana arrests across the country, he reported. One reason 
for the decrease in arrests since then is that California and 
Massachusetts have decriminalized marijuana, he said. With 
decriminalization, police issue civil citations instead of arresting 
people for smoking a joint or carrying a small amount of marijuana.

During the 2007-2012 nationwide decline, 33 states, including 
Pennsylvania, also saw a decrease, Gettman's study showed. 
Pennsylvania has not decriminalized marijuana and currently is 
weighing legalizing medical marijuana.

Ofer, with the ACLU, also suggested that the marijuana arrest 
increase in New Jersey could be the result of the "broken windows 
policy" in law enforcement in which police concentrate on stopping 
people for minor offenses to net major offenders who also break 
low-level laws. Marijuana violations, vandalism, and motor-vehicle 
violations are among the minor offenses that are targeted.

The New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance said arrests for 
simple possession of marijuana can have "tragic long-term 
consequences" for otherwise law-abiding citizens. Roseanne Scotti, 
the director, said the arrests bring criminal records that can make 
it difficult to obtain jobs, housing, student loans, and can cause 
"stigma and humiliation." She also said the state "wastes more than 
$125 million dollars a year" on these arrests.

Currently, New Jersey residents face up to six months imprisonment 
and more than $1,000 in fines for a first-time arrest on a charge of 
simple possession of 50 grams or less. Ofer said that few people who 
are charged with this violation actually serve prison time for a 
first offense, but the "devastating consequences" of these arrests 
can also include eviction for families and deportation.

Richard Smith, head of the New Jersey State NAACP, echoed the 
remarks. Though the civil rights group does not advocate marijuana 
use, he said that "young people of color" are disproportionately 
apprehended and their futures are unfairly jeopardized.

Bills that would either legalize or decriminalize marijuana are 
pending in the state legislature. In 2010, New Jersey allowed medical 
marijuana and restricted it to patients suffering from a dozen ailments.

Christie has said he would veto any bill that would legalize 
marijuana for adult recreational use because he said he is concerned 
that marijuana could cause addiction problems and may fall into the 
hands of children.

But the bills' supporters say studies show marijuana is less 
dangerous than alcohol and tobacco and that legalizing it for adult 
use would allow law enforcement to focus on preventing children from 
obtaining it.

Bill Caruso, a Haddonfield attorney who is on the steering committee 
of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform coalition, testified 
that it's time to "stop penalizing citizens who are no danger to 
society." He said the spike in marijuana arrests is worrisome, but he 
believes the legislation has a good chance of passing despite the 
governor's veto threat.

"Realistically, we know what we are up against," he said. "But there 
is a potential for an override ... and we're getting a lot of public 
support for this bill."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom