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Effort to decriminalize pot in N.J. sees Camden in leading role

Instead of making an arrest and handcuffing offenders, police would be authorized to issue civil citations and nominal fines.

A person buys marijuana at the Essence cannabis dispensary, Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Las Vegas.
A person buys marijuana at the Essence cannabis dispensary, Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Las Vegas.Read moreAP Photo/John Locher

New Jersey allows medical marijuana and may be edging toward legalizing recreational pot, but cannabis activists impatient with the legislative process are quietly gathering support for something they hope will be quicker to accomplish — decriminalization at the local level.

And if they have their way, Camden could become the first city in the state to pass an ordinance ending criminal penalties for the simple possession of small amounts of cannabis.

Instead of making an arrest and handcuffing offenders, police would be authorized to issue civil citations and nominal fines.

Councilman Angel Fuentes is backing the change and said he hopes it can happen as early as the fall, after a study is expected to be completed.

"Camden is taking the initiative. … If we start this process, Newark and Paterson, Passaic, and Trenton may look at us and take a lead as well," he said.

Across the river, Philadelphia led the way in 2014 with a decriminalization bill that initially faced strong opposition from former Mayor Michael Nutter and former Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Then a councilman, Mayor Kenney advocated for the ordinance, saying it would stop wasting the valuable time of police officers and end the arrests of thousands of people who may possess as little as a joint.

He noted that more than 4,000 people were arrested in the city in 2013 on possession charges, including a disproportionate number of African Americans — more than 80 percent of all the arrests.

Kenney "didn't think it made sense for someone to have a criminal record because they had a very small amount of pot on them. In that sense, Philly's decriminalization effort has been successful. Philadelphians are no longer facing lifelong consequences because of minor marijuana possession," his spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said in an email last week.

Under Philadelphia's bill, possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana, or just over an ounce, now carries a $25 fine. In some circumstances, though, police officers still have discretion to follow state law and impose criminal citations that can lead to up to 30 days in jail and $500 in fines – and a criminal record.

In New Jersey, simple possession can result in a maximum six-month jail term and up to $1,000 in fines.

But such an arrest can have other consequences, according to a report by New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition of civil liberties, minority rights, and political activists that advocates for the repeal of marijuana prohibition. A marijuana arrest can often lead to the loss of a job, future employment opportunities, college scholarships and loans, driving privileges, and housing. It can also result in deportation.

Last year, more than 25,000 people were arrested in New Jersey for simple possession. The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were arrested on these charges three times as often as whites although the usage rates are similar.

Decriminalization can quickly end this injustice, while the debate over legalization continues, said Chris Goldstein, one of the cannabis advocates who approached Camden about adopting an ordinance to address this problem.

Currently, 22 states have passed decriminalization laws. In the states that have not, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, more than 60 municipalities have filled the void with this type of ordinance, said Goldstein, who writes the Philly420 column for and who was involved with the advocacy group NORML and the Philadelphia decriminalization effort.

"The ordinances downgrade the penalties and acknowledge that the marijuana laws are wrong and are racist," he said. "People want to see something done even before Christie leaves office, and by doing this in Camden we're creating a template for other cities in New Jersey to also give it a try," he said.

In New Jersey, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari hopes his recreational marijuana legalization bill will be ready in January, when Gov. Christie's term ends. Christie has promised a veto. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy supports legalization while Republican Kim Guadagno opposes it.

Scutari favors legalization because he said decriminalization allows the black market to continue to flourish. But if his bill passes and is signed by a future governor, it would take one year to fully implement legalization, he said. So his bill calls for decriminalization immediately upon passage of his bill, pending implementation of legalization.

Fuentes said in an interview last week that he would like to create an ad hoc committee to look into a municipal decriminalization ordinance.

"Unfortunately a lot of people are being sent to jail for marijuana, even college students, and it becomes a stigma when they apply for a job or loan. … I want to make sure young people have a bright future and this is impeding them from jobs and education," he said.

Ricardo Rivera, a cannabis activist and the father of a 10-year-old medical-marijuana patient who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy, is also lobbying council to pass a decriminalization measure.

"We're locking up 18-year-old kids and ruining their lives because of a small amount of marijuana. What are they hurting?" said Rivera, an Oaklyn resident who grew up in Camden,

Many people use marijuana to help them with opiate addiction and they should be able to use it legally to wean themselves off the more dangerous drug, he said. Rivera, whose sister died of opiate addiction, testified a few months ago before a state health department advisory committee and recommended that opiate addiction be added to the list of ailments that qualify for medical marijuana.

"Why should these people have to wait for access?" he asked.

In the city of Camden, on average over the last three years, there were 223 marijuana arrests per year, according to figures provided by Dan Keashen, a spokesman for the county. Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, whose force patrols the city, did not respond to calls and a text message asking for comment.

A decision on whether to create the ad hoc committee was expected last week but was postponed until next month's meeting.

In recent years, Atlantic City and Asbury Park municipal officials also have considered resolutions to decriminalize marijuana but abandoned the idea when they couldn't find enough support.

In Pennsylvania, several cities besides Philadelphia have adopted similar resolutions, including Pittsburgh and State College.

Some municipalities have seen their ordinances challenged on legal grounds.

In Tennessee, Nashville and Memphis passed decriminalization ordinances last year that gave the police the power to issue civil citations instead of filing criminal charges. But in March, state lawmakers repealed the ordinances, saying they conflicted with state drug laws.

Goldstein said some municipalities have opted to "de-prioritize marijuana," or to make it the lowest enforcement priority.

"There are many approaches for municipal government to downgrade penalties and reduce arrests in their city. … We need to address these marijuana arrests and decide what should be done," he said.