July 16, 2019 | 71° F

Backwards laws hurt New Jerseyans

Those who use marijuana in New Jersey are at a severe disadvantage due to our backward laws regarding the widely used illegal psychoactive substance in the country, according to cannabis.net. It seems our legislators have other priorities, which may be more important, but the fact is that New Jersey punishes its own residents with outdated anti-pot laws.

As other nations, states and municipalities have begun to decriminalize or legalize the substance, New Jersey leaves its own residents and visitors to shoulder a far more significant burden should they be caught with weed. As a result, New Jerseyans are left with fewer options and greater problems for using a drug many consider to be far less harmful than alcohol, according to progress.org.

Recently, Denver, Colorado became the first major city in the United States to decriminalize possession of the drug, thanks to the efforts of a group that helped get a citywide ballot question secured. The group, Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, also purchased advertising promoting the argument that pot is a safer alternative to alcohol use and abuse. The group itself was, in fact, started in response to the alcohol overdose deaths of a Colorado State University sophomore and a University of Colorado freshman.

Great controversy erupted over the ballot question, but the voters approved by a 54-46 margin the decriminalization ordinance, which permitted up to one ounce of marijuana possession for adults over 21. But state and federal law continues to trump the will of the city's voters.

Under state law, local police were still permitted to arrest and charge marijuana possessors as they always had. It was hoped, however, that in the same way police may let a speeder off with a warning, they would do the same for marijuana possession. Unfortunately, marijuana arrests actually increased significantly in Denver after the ballot question passed. So SAFER went back to work securing another ballot question last November making private adult marijuana possession officially Denver's lowest law enforcement priority. This initiative passed 57-43.

Much to the chagrin of SAFER, arrests for possession continued to increase last year. Since 2004, the year before the first initiative passed, arrests have increased by approximately 50 percent. There are, no doubt, several state, city and federal laws that are much lower on the Denver PD's radar than weed. Unfortunately, it seems that the establishment's views are not congruent with the voters' decision to make it their lowest priority, as they seem to be elevating it to a higher priority. So perhaps there is little that individual municipalities and their voters can do to change the way these laws are applied. States, on the other hand, have significant ability to affect the charging and prosecution of marijuana offenders.

Some states have drastically lowered the penalties for marijuana possession, and, contrary to the worst fears of conservatives everywhere, they have failed to turn into lawless wastelands of hippies and addicts. In fact, in the State of New York, the penalty for possessing up to 25 grams of marijuana is a mere $100 civil citation, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Web site. Second offense is $200. Ooooh, I'm shaking in my boots. California has similar penalties on the books, as well as a burgeoning medical marijuana industry. Some locales in sunny California have even removed all penalties for possession or cultivation.

But under New Jersey state law, possession of .001 to 50 grams can be punished by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail! Even if the defendant were able to negotiate a good deal in court, they'd still be up a creek without a paddle. Excluding the cost of an attorney, defendants would have to pay an average of $800 or more to the state, in addition to having to complete one year probation so that they do not have the charge on their permanent record. If a defendant should fail to complete probation, who knows what horrible legal problems they will be stuck with, not to mention the detriment to future employment. Again, on the other side of the Hudson, an offender would have received only a $100 ticket. This is not a new thing by the way: New York began to decriminalize pot in 1977, according to stopthedrugwar.org.

Courts in New Jersey are packed with simple marijuana offenses, and they waste the time of our law enforcement agencies and legal systems, which in many areas are already understaffed. The greatest injustice seems to be done to those who the system convicts outright. With a permanent blemish on their criminal history that reads "possession of a controlled dangerous substance," defendants will be forced to explain this conviction at every future job interview. Furthermore, they are making it significantly harder for these people to find any job whatsoever, making it more likely that they will instead choose to sit around and use more drugs.

Keeping opportunities out of reach of ex-offenders has been proven time and again to ensure that they follow the same path that got them into legal trouble. It is a disservice to New Jerseyans that our state leaders have refused to revisit these harsh penalties. And furthermore, it is a disservice to the American people that our federal government continues to attempt to fight a losing war against recreational users of a drug proven to be less detrimental to one's health than cigarettes and alcohol (according to marijuanafacts.org and progress.org), both of which are multi-billion dollar industries employing tens of thousands.

So long as the feds continue to fight against legalized marijuana, this multi-billion dollar industry will remain under the control of gangs and criminals. The alternative is clear: Let people buy it at Rite-Aid or Krauszer's, and allow our economy to benefit from the marijuana industry via taxation. I would much rather pay a premium to the government for a regulated, safe and legal bag of pot than pay the same or a higher premium so that some drug dealer can buy guns to protect his stash or sneak harder drugs across the border. I think most potheads would agree.

Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College senior majoring in journalism and media studies. He can be heard every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on HearNewBrunswick.com. His column runs alternate Thursdays.

Charlie Kratovil

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