Looking Eastward: Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Marijuana Legislation in New Jersey
Thomas Bertron | March 2021
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy meets with Former President Donald Trump (April 2020)
ollowing the lead of multiple states, New Jersey legalized the possession and usage of marijuana on February 22, 2021. Under the new law, possession of six ounces or less of marijuana by people 21 years or older is not considered a criminal offense. While this is a victory for the overwhelming number of New Jersey residents who voted in favor for it to be legalized, the passage of the law does raise some questions for the rest of us. Specifically, how will this affect those who have been previously convicted for possession of the now-legalized substance, and how will this affect the state’s crime rate?
In order to analyze how this could affect future crime, there are multiple angles from which to approach the issue. One such approach is to review past data from the state. In previous attempts to legalize the substance, proponents provided statistics in order to convey financial costs of continuing to prosecute those in possession of marijuana. Specifically, New Jersey Senate Bill 830, introduced on January 9, 2018, specifically mentioned that the state spent approximately $127 million annually on “marijuana enforcement costs.” More of those resources can now be diverted to other areas that are in need of investment, one notable example being the roads. Additionally, statistics from 2012 were given in the bill, highlighting the extent of people arrested in relation to marijuana use: “law enforcement officers made over 24,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, more than in the previous 20 years… a person was arrested for marijuana possession… approximately every 22 minutes… marijuana possession arrests constituted three out of every five drug arrests”. While this data is from nine years ago, it puts into perspective how many people were negatively impacted by laws against marijuana usage. Thus is it clear that marijuana legalization will result in lower financial costs and will provide law enforcement with more time and resources to combat more pressing emergencies in their respective communities.
Additionally, minority groups have been disproportionately affected when it comes to serving prison time for possession of marijuana. Despite using the drug at comparable rates, “Black New Jerseyans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white New Jerseyans”. As indicated by the overwhelming presence of the Black Lives Matter movement, all over the country there have been calls for change in policing. With the passage of the bill, there is hope that minorities will experience lower arrest rates, which will hopefully lower the racially disparate impact associated with drug arrests in the state.
Another way to analyze the impact of legalization of the drug is to analyze previously legalized states’ criminal systems. One such state is Colorado, where the legalization of the recreational usage of marijuana occurred on January 1, 2013. In terms of arrests related to marijuana, in the first five years the arrests for the drug dropped significantly; “According to an October 2018 report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Office of Research and Statistics; marijuana arrests dropped 56 percent… from 12,709 to 6,153”. The arrest rate did not drop to zero because, though marijuana was legalized, laws were still in place limiting how much of it a person could carry or distribute. Since the report spanned five years, a comparatively long time span for a study, its evidence gains additional credibility. The lower number of arrests puts less pressure on the prison system, and less pressure on the taxpayers who have to pay to maintain their states’ overflowing prison populations.
Elsewhere in the United States, legalization of marijuana has not had a huge impact on violent crimes. Interestingly, two states in particular have seen a major reduction in post-legalization crime, while two other states have seen a surge. An article by the Cato Institute explains: “Violent crime in Maine and Nevada decreased by 90 and 178 crimes per 100,000 compared with… the violent crime rate in Alaska and Massachusetts [which] increased post-legalization by 152 and 57 more than the national trend”. While at least two states have been negatively impacted by the legalization of the drug, there are multiple factors that can come into play when it comes to committing a violent crime. Drugs are not always the cause of violence.
Legalization of the drug can also have a positive impact on people who have been criminally charged in possession of the drug before it was legalized. In New Jersey under the new legislation, people who had previously been charged in connection to the drug can have “‘a conviction or adjudication of delinquency solely for one or more crimes or offenses’ and ‘any remaining sentence, ongoing supervision, or unpaid court ordered financial assessment… be vacated by operation of law’”. This is good news, as it will alleviate the burden and stigma associated with having a criminal record tarnished with a narcotics conviction. This will assist prior offenders in the job market, as individuals are more likely to be hired for a job if they do not have a criminal record.
With the legalization of marijuana, New Jersey joins multiple other states in recognizing that policing and arrests for usage of the drug do more harm than good to residents. As has been noted in this article, crime rates for states that have previously legalized the drug have not generally observed an increase in violence, though confounding factors exist. Additionally, with the legalization of the drug, thousands of people have the opportunity to clean their record and move on with their lives. At least in the short run, the benefits of marijuana legalization appear to outweigh the costs, both financially and socially. Several states across the Midwest, including Indiana, Nebraska, and Kansas, might look to New Jersey and the handful of other legalizing states as a model for fiscal and social responsibility.