State Suspends Low-Level Marijuana Cases Until September - For A Start

Attorney General says decision buys time for working group to advise on prosecutorial authority and downgrading of charges. Directive does not extend to law enforcement.

New Jersey won’t be prosecuting low-level marijuana cases for the next month, and possibly longer.

In a letter to New Jersey’s county and municipal prosecutors, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced yesterday that, effective immediately, all municipal prosecutors in the state should “seek an adjournment until September 4, 2018, or later, of any matter involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court.”

This means that all open marijuana cases in the state’s municipal courts will be postponed for 30 days — a move that will impact tens of thousands of individuals statewide. (Most minor marijuana charges are dealt with at the municipal court level.)

Grewal’s announcement follows a dispute between his office and Jersey City, which announced last week that its prosecutor’s office would no longer pursue low-level marijuana cases, effectively decriminalizing cannabis in Jersey City. Grewal, New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer, objected to the announcement, calling it prosecutorial overreach.

Now, Grewal said that his own decision to adjourn cases buys him time while he convenes a working group of criminal-justice stakeholders to study and advise him on municipal prosecutors’ authority. A report from the group should result in a statewide directive in August that will clarify prosecutorial powers concerning marijuana charge downgrades and dismissals. He plans to announce the makeup of the group later this week.

People can still be arrested

The Attorney General’s new directive does not extend to law enforcement, meaning New Jersey citizens can still be arrested for using or possessing small amounts of marijuana. Prosecutors are, however, instructed to hold off on taking these cases to court.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, praised the move, saying it’s a big step forward for the state.

“A single marijuana conviction can have devastating consequences, including fines, incarceration, job loss, and effects on housing and immigration status, affecting not just the individual, but also their families and communities,” Sinha said in a statement. “As the state Legislature charts a course towards legalization of marijuana for adult use, it only makes sense that municipalities would begin attempting to undo the harms of prohibition that have ravaged communities — particularly communities of color — throughout the state,” he said.

Indeed, ACLU data shows that New Jersey is making more arrests for marijuana possession now than in years past, adding more than 25,000 new such arrests each year.

Yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy while at the signing of the school-aid reform bill, shared his take on the matter. Saying he would leave the details for the Attorney General to decide, he said, “I’m all in,” on marijuana legalization. “I’m not a big decriminalization fan. On the surface it is intoxicating, you think it is a step in the right direction, but it leaves the business in the hands of the bad guys. Kids are exposed, it’s not regulated, it’s not taxed.”

Grewal not happy with Jersey City initiative

After a closed-door meeting with Jersey City officials Monday, Grewal issued a statement saying that he “expressed his concern that Jersey City had acted without consulting state and county law enforcement officials before issuing the memorandum,” and had demonstrated “an improper exercise of a municipal prosecutor’s authority.”

Expected as part of the August directive, Grewal will undoubtedly have more to say on prosecutorial discretion and how much power municipal prosecutors have in relation to the state Attorney General’s office. Depending on the contents of the directive, the results could be far reaching, encompassing more than just marijuana cases.

Jersey City chief prosecutor Jake Hudnut — who initiated the move in his jurisdiction last Thursday — said in a statement, “I took the job as Chief Prosecutor in Jersey City to help build a progressive, proactive, and thoughtful prosecutors office. We want to make sure that Jersey City is at the forefront of these conversations and I’m proud to have pushed this issue from the onset.”

What this means for legalization

Many advocates of marijuana legalization are hailing the Attorney General’s move as a positive step towards full legalization in the state. New Jersey CannaBusiness Association president Scott Rudder praised Grewal and the Murphy administration for their continued attention to the cause of legal recreational use of marijuana.

“[This action is] a huge leap forward in the ongoing effort to bring legal recreational cannabis and expansion of medical cannabis to New Jersey. Coupled with continued progress in the Legislature, there is renewed hope that legalization and expansion will occur sooner rather than later,” Rudder said in an emailed statement.

Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union), who’s at the forefront of a push in the Legislature for legalization, said the adjournment will help push lawmakers toward passing his adult-use bill.

“I think it certainly gives us an impetus and more momentum to get this done,” he said, “I spoke to members of the administration… and we're all on same page that we want a legalized cannabis market... it sends a signal that we need to act now. We don’t want to continue to convict people and have to go back and expunge more people’s records later.”

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