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MEHTA: Legalizing marijuana requires stipulations

Column: Grass Roots

Buckle up, potheads. Time to get into the weeds. 

A 24-second news cycle makes it difficult to remember that Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) marijuana legalization effort failed just 8 months ago — my apologies to the governor for the reminder. 

With a number of reasons for the blunder in what would have been one of Murphy's biggest victories since his election in 2017, opposition on both sides of the political aisle can be credited as a key catalyst in this rushed-despite-a-number-of-pushbacks bill’s failure. 

Reasons for the unity-in-opposition also came aplenty, with Republicans opposing it as Republicans do, and, in terms of the purview of this piece, opposing Democrats wanting to ensure this bill truly focused on equity for minority communities — stipulations included ensuring minority entrepreneurs were going to benefit. 

But one of the most pressing issues, in a state where African Americans make up 14% of New Jersey’s population but are 61% of its prisons, was criminal justice reform. 

While immediate and online expungements, potential release and ending of parole for those convicted of marijuana crimes were all provisions of this bill, and, while they were more than positive steps in the right direction, tax incentives and political motives also contributed to the bill’s failure. 

This is why the following policy proposal takes the reasons for the failure of New Jersey’s marijuana bill and allows them to hopefully be extrapolated into other state’s legislative attempts to pass similar progressive marijuana legalization and decriminalization bills. 

If criminal justice is truly important to those who are introducing these bills, then it should expand beyond marijuana itself. 

Racial profiling and disproportionate sentencing for minorities still remains extremely prevalent in America’s criminal justice system, and the goal of any true criminal justice reformer seeks to end such injustices as well as end the injustice of mass incarceration, which works beyond addressing non-violent offenses and ensures due process and the right to a fair trial remain applicable to all those in this country. 

A key point in creating this equity is in ensuring that public defender’s offices are well funded and staffed. John Oliver’s breakdown of the underfunding and overwork of public defenders in certain states paints a scary picture for the fates of indigent defendants in certain states. Gideon at 50 is a website that breaks down the funding, cost per capita and workload standards for public defenders within those states. 

What the data shows is frightening. 

The state of New Jersey has no workload limits for public defenders, and the state of Mississippi spends $5.06 per capita on its public defenders. DUIs, racial disparities and other crimes will still exist whether or not marijuana becomes legal in a state, so why not continue to create a fairer country using legalization as a vehicle to do so?

My proposal seeks to use part of the revenue created from the taxes garnered through legalizing marijuana to better fund public defenders in the states it is sold.  

In doing so, states would inherently be increasing the truth behind the equity-driven platitudes their politicians often offer as a means to push marijuana legalization through. Better funding for public defenders has no negatives to it if the goal of our public servants is to truly create a land of the free. 

To think of this tangentially, a better public defender’s office may lead to no jail time for both innocent people who are no longer forced into taking pleas, and for those who would not have gotten jail time had they had a better or less overworked attorney. 

With this, those same people will not be in jail working making little to no money and they will not have to worry about the effects of felony disenfranchisement. They inherently then would have a better chance at a successful future. 

There can be no ulterior motives in wanting a fairer defense for those who cannot afford them. There is no reason there should be increased funding for public defender offices anyway. 

If such a provision will help get marijuana legalization passed in states that want it, and will continue in some way to advance an effort toward more equity in the country, why are politicians not blazing this trail? 

Rishi Mehta is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and minoring in english. His column, "Grass Roots," runs on alternate Mondays.


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