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N.J. pot arrests have increased even as legislators consider legalization

As public acceptance of marijuana use grows in the United States, nationwide arrests for simple possession of pot have dropped in recent years. New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

As public acceptance of marijuana use grows in the United States, nationwide arrests for simple possession of pot have dropped in recent years. New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

Marijuana arrests in the state jumped 10 percent in 2012 and 2013, according to the latest New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Reports.

In fact, the 24,765 arrests made for possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2013 is the highest number in 20 years, and nearly double the amount in 1993, when the state's population was 12 percent less, based on state police statistics and an analysis by the ACLU of New Jersey. In the five years prior to 2013, arrests had hovered around 22,000.

The numbers were highlighted at a historic state Senate Committee hearing on pot legalization held in Trenton last week.

Udi Ofer, executive director of the state's ACLU chapter, testified at the Trenton hearing that the increasing arrests are a concern especially since he said studies show three times as many African Americans as whites are charged with simple possession, which is 50 grams or less. Studies also show the usage rates of the drug by both groups are the same, he said.

When asked his view on the 10 percent increase in the arrest rate, he said in an interview Thursday that he doubts "anyone knows the exact answer, but it's a point of concern. . . . It coincides with a governor who has taken an incredibly harsh tone on marijuana use." Ofer said that Gov. Christie, a Republican, has said on the presidential campaign trail that "if he were to become president, he would arrest people in Colorado or Washington or other states that legalize marijuana, and that sets a tone and trickles down to law enforcement."

Chris Goldstein, who sits on the board of PhillyNORML and is a marijuana blogger, also sees Christie as promoting a marijuana crackdown. "Christie is the most vocal marijuana prohibitionist in America right now. . . . His rhetoric obviously hasn't been lost on the police captains of New Jersey," he said.

In an email, Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, questioned any link between the arrest numbers and Christie's marijuana stance, calling it a "harebrained theory."

The spike in marijuana arrests, which began two years into Christie's tenure in office, could have implications for his presidential bid as the mood of the country swings towards wider acceptance of cannabis and against incarceration for marijuana possession. A Gallup poll last month found 58 percent of Americans nationwide favor legalization for adults, while a Rutgers-Eagleton poll in June showed the same percentage of New Jerseyans support it.

Nationwide, there were about 750,000 marijuana arrests in 2012, the latest figures available, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national coalition that lobbies for reform of drug laws and legalization of marijuana.

Jon Gettman, a Shenandoah University professor who has studied marijuana policy issues and has analyzed FBI and other statistics, said the decline nationwide began in 2007. That year there were 873,000 marijuana arrests across the country, he reported. One reason for the decrease in arrests since then is that California and Massachusetts have decriminalized marijuana, he said. With decriminalization, police issue civil citations instead of arresting people for smoking a joint or carrying a small amount of marijuana.

During the 2007-2012 nationwide decline, 33 states, including Pennsylvania, also saw a decrease, Gettman's study showed. Pennsylvania has not decriminalized marijuana and currently is weighing legalizing medical marijuana.

Ofer, with the ACLU, also suggested that the marijuana arrest increase in New Jersey could be the result of the "broken windows policy" in law enforcement in which police concentrate on stopping people for minor offenses to net major offenders who also break low-level laws. Marijuana violations, vandalism, and motor-vehicle violations are among the minor offenses that are targeted.

The New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance said arrests for simple possession of marijuana can have "tragic long-term consequences" for otherwise law-abiding citizens. Roseanne Scotti, the director, said the arrests bring criminal records that can make it difficult to obtain jobs, housing, student loans, and can cause "stigma and humiliation." She also said the state "wastes more than $125 million dollars a year" on these arrests.

Currently, New Jersey residents face up to six months imprisonment and more than $1,000 in fines for a first-time arrest on a charge of simple possession of 50 grams or less. Ofer said that few people who are charged with this violation actually serve prison time for a first offense, but the "devastating consequences" of these arrests can also include eviction for families and deportation.

Richard Smith, head of the New Jersey State NAACP, echoed the remarks. Though the civil rights group does not advocate marijuana use, he said that "young people of color" are disproportionately apprehended and their futures are unfairly jeopardized.

Bills that would either legalize or decriminalize marijuana are pending in the state legislature. In 2010, New Jersey allowed medical marijuana and restricted it to patients suffering from a dozen ailments.

Christie has said he would veto any bill that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use because he said he is concerned that marijuana could cause addiction problems and may fall into the hands of children.

But the bills' supporters say studies show marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco and that legalizing it for adult use would allow law enforcement to focus on preventing children from obtaining it.

Bill Caruso, a Haddonfield attorney who is on the steering committee of the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform coalition, testified that it's time to "stop penalizing citizens who are no danger to society." He said the spike in marijuana arrests is worrisome, but he believes the legislation has a good chance of passing despite the governor's veto threat.

"Realistically, we know what we are up against," he said. "But there is a potential for an override . . . and we're getting a lot of public support for this bill."

856-779-3224 @JanHefler