As Garden State lawmakers continue to hash out legislation to legalize marijuana, the attorney general on Wednesday directed all prosecutors to put a hold on cases charging possession of small amounts of the substance.
“All New Jersey municipal, county, and state prosecutors are instructed to seek an adjournment, until at least Jan. 25, 2021,” of low-level marijuana crimes, wrote state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in guidance distributed to the state’s top law enforcement officers.
Grewal’s directive does not cover driving under the influence. More crucially, Grewal did not order police to stop arresting people for small amounts of marijuana.
Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure on Nov. 3 to legalize regulated cannabis. That law, which made New Jersey the first state in the Mid-Atlantic region to legalize weed, will go into effect on Jan. 1, though it may take a year or more for a program to be enacted. Despite passage of the measure, police in the state continue to arrest about 100 people a day on low level marijuana charges, according to advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
If there are more serious charges included on top of a marijuana offense, Grewal asked prosecutors to “use their discretion” and dismiss or postpone the entire case.
“Fairness and justice require that we, as prosecutors, not move forward with charges that the Legislature may foreclose in the near future,” Grewal wrote. “We will provide more comprehensive guidance, including direction on handling of previously adjudicated matters, when the Legislature provides details of the framework for marijuana decriminalization and the legalization of adult-use cannabis.
Senate president Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) praised Grewal’s directive in a tweet.
“We applaud @NewJerseyOAG for taking the necessary steps to finally bring an end to arrests for marijuana possession,” Sweeney wrote. “Now that the people of NJ have spoken, no one should be subject to facing criminal charges for minimal amounts of this substance.”
A bill to decriminalize cannabis possession charges in the Legislature stalled earlier this month after state Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Linden), and chair of the New Jersey State Senate Judiciary Committee, added a last-minute amendment that would decrease penalties for possessing less than an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms. Though the Senate passed the bill with the mushroom amendment, the assembly balked and tabled it.
Enabling legislation to set up and regulate a state legal-marijuana industry is being delayed as lawmakers debate the number of retailers that will be permitted to operate. Members in the assembly have argued for a maximum of 37; the Senate appears to be in favor of allowing as many storefronts as the market will bear.