ACLU report: Blacks in N.J. are arrested for marijuana 3 times as often as whites

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Use of marijuana by blacks and whites is about equal, according to the report.

In New Jersey, African Americans are arrested for possession of marijuana about three times as often as Caucasians and Hispanics, and in some of the state’s smaller towns more than 25 to 30 times as often, according to a report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey on Thursday.

The ACLU’s two-year analysis of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program revealed police in New Jersey’s rural and suburban towns were more likely to disproportionately arrest blacks for marijuana than police in urban communities between 2000 and 2013.

“The war on marijuana is a war on marijuana users, and it’s disproportionately a war on black communities,” ACLU-NJ interim executive director Diane DuBrule said in a statement released with the detailed 70-page report.

The arrests ranged from possession of a joint to as much as 50 grams (less than two ounces).

The report also noted that the rate of marijuana use among blacks and whites is similar, based on the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, while the arrest rate for blacks is much higher. The survey said that 42.1 percent of blacks reported having used marijuana, compared with 48.9 percent of whites.

“Racial disparities in New Jersey marijuana arrests are at an all-time high,” the report said. According to the ACLU, blacks were twice as likely to be arrested in 2000 and three times as likely in 2013.

In 2013, the five counties in the state with the highest racial disparity included three from South Jersey and the Shore – Ocean, Salem, and Gloucester.  (The others were Monmouth and Hunterdon.) That year, the town with the worst disparity rate was Point Pleasant Beach, with a population of nearly 4,700, where blacks were “nearly 32 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites,” the report said.

A call placed to the Point Pleasant Beach police chief in Ocean County was not returned Thursday.

“Police departments with the highest arrest rates in New Jersey tend to operate in smaller towns,” the report said, noting that Trenton was the only one of the state’s 50 largest municipalities to make the list of places in New Jersey with the highest arrest rates.

The ACLU called upon the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate to determine the cause of this disparity and a possible remedy.  Leland Moore, a spokesman for the office, said in an email that it would have no comment on the report or whether the agency might look into the issue.

“We would look forward to working with them to develop policy solutions to curtail racial disparities,” said Diana Houenou, policy counselor for the ACLU-NJ.

She also said that the advocacy group was supporting a bill recently introduced in the state Senate to legalize marijuana, a substance Houenou said is considered less harmful for adults than alcohol.

Currently, New Jersey allows medical marijuana, but a bill sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari would legalize cannabis for recreational use as well.  A hearing on the bill, which is still in committee, is scheduled for Monday.

The ACLU is part of a coalition of advocacy groups, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, that supports legalization along with the expunging of criminal records for those arrested for possession of marijuana.

Nearly 25,000 people were arrested in New Jersey for marijuana possession in 2015, and these arrests often lead to criminal records that make it difficult to find employment, housing, and educational opportunities and carry a lifelong stigma, the ACLU said.  It also can lead to a driver’s license suspension, imprisonment for up to six months, and loss of immigration status.

“New Jersey has a choice to make: Does it want to spend more than $143 million each year to enforce these unnecessary, harmful laws, or does it want to collect more than $300 million each year in revenue” from taxing recreational marijuana,” Houenou said.

Nationwide, blacks also were arrested three times as often as whites on average in 2013 for marijuana possession, according to the national ACLU. The New Jersey chapter, however, did a deeper analysis of the federal data and determined the locations where the racial disparity was the greatest.

Among the top 50 municipalities that in 2013 had the highest racial disparities were Haddon Heights, Mount Ephraim, Cherry Hill, Stratford, and Waterford Township in Camden County; Medford Township, Burlington, and Riverside in Burlington County; and Harrison Township in Gloucester County, according to the report

“Black New Jerseyans bear the significant brunt of marijuana enforcement practices,” the report said.  Houenou said that the ACLU analyzed the data but does not know the reason for the different enforcement rates.

“Taxing, regulating, and legalizing marijuana possession would be a step forward in reducing the disproportionate burden the criminal justice system has placed on people of color in New Jersey,” said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, in a statement.

A 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found nearly 60 percent of New Jersey residents support legalizing marijuana.

Houenou said the ACLU report was undertaken to shed light on the problems created by the war on marijuana and especially on the racial disparity in enforcing those laws.