Prosecutors in New Jersey cannot unilaterally decriminalize marijuana possession in their jurisdictions, the state attorney general announced Wednesday, but they are being encouraged to use their discretion with people charged with low-level cannabis crimes.
State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal issued a guidance memo to the Garden State's prosecutors, asking them to carefully consider the repercussions of a marijuana conviction on the lives of people charged with simple possession.
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He asked prosecutors to weigh the "collateral consequences" a conviction might have on a defendant's ability to find work, remain in school, and receive government loans, housing, and licensing. Grewal also requested prosecutors to take into account age, circumstances of arrest, immigration consequences, and adverse familial consequences.
"The goal should be to achieve individual justice in individual cases," he said in a nine-page memo addressed to all of New Jersey's county and municipal prosecutors.
Arrests for simple marijuana possession have skyrocketed recently in the Garden State. From 2015 to 2016, total marijuana arrests jumped nearly 27 percent, according to NJ.com. The reasons for the increase remain unclear. Arrests will remain at the discretion of police officers.
Grewal had temporarily put marijuana prosecutions on hold after Jersey City officials — following Philadelphia's example — announced they would no longer prosecute low-level marijuana crimes. With the release of Grewal's memo, prosecutions may resume across the state on Tuesday.
"A local government unit may not 'decriminalize' or otherwise license conduct which violates the state's criminal code," he wrote.
The memo restates existing law that prohibits plea agreements for drunken driving and certain drug offenses.
Advocates for the reform of drug laws said they appreciated Grewal's guidance, but don't think the memo will make much of a difference.
"They're well-intended, but unfortunately they don't really change anything," said Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "What the AG did was reiterate the current rules around prosecutorial discretion, but all that existed before. So this highlights the need for the state legislature to change the law so that people aren't arrested to begin with."
Marijuana possession remains illegal under New Jersey law unless the holder is a participant in the medical marijuana program. The state legislature is considering legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use, but though momentum is building — Gov. Murphy and Senate president Stephen Sweeney are supporters — a bill has yet to be introduced.
Kevin Sabet, the founder of an anti-legalization group called Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, called the new guidance "commonsense" and said there should be a bipartisan approach to decriminalization of marijuana.
Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said the governor "fully supports" the guidance and noted that Murphy has said legalization is a "critical step in eliminating racial disparities."