It was a long way to go to basically get back to the status quo. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, on a conference call Wednesday, issued new guidelines to municipalities and counties on how to handle small-time marijuana possession prosecutions. The guidelines come out of a working group convened by the attorney general after Jersey City tried to decriminalize weed on its own.
“The guidance broadly reaffirms that municipal prosecutors are not permitted to decriminalize marijuana,” said Grewal. “Instead, municipal prosecutors handling marijuana cases may appropriately exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis as they would when prosecuting any other type of offense to achieve just results.”
Among the circumstances prosecutors can take into account are the potential impacts to an individual’s employment, their immigration status, housing and other government benefits, and what it could mean to their family circumstance.
“These are all factors that prosecutors weren’t being encouraged to consider. Now they are,” said ACLU New Jersey policy counsel Dianna Houenou, “and I think that by shining a light on the adverse consequences that come with marijuana arrests and convictions, it really shows the significant collateral consequences and how marijuana prohibition harms individuals and New Jersey families.”
That’s the point Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop says he was trying to make when he attempted to unilaterally decriminalize marijuana last month.
“I think it is,” said the mayor. “I mean, we were looking for discretion and that’s what started this conversation. They pushed back a little bit on it and they had the working group, and we ultimately we landed in a place that will get us to where we want to be. So I think the attorney general deserves credit because he put together a group, and maybe it wasn’t initially where they thought it would land, but they worked through it.”
Both the city and the ACLU were represented on the attorney general’s working group. The group did not consider the pros and cons of legalization. That wasn’t their charge, but the ACLU says any further discussion of marijuana laws will have to include a resolution to the question of expunging records of those convicted under the old marijuana laws.
“Luckily we do have lawmakers in Trenton who have been vocal about not voting for a bill unless it contains concrete provisions that deal with racial and social justice. But those lawmakers can’t be alone,” added Houenou. “We need other lawmakers to stand up and say that there’s no way that this will happen without justice being at the forefront.”
The attorney general acknowledged that the Legislature could take action that would render all of this moot. But considering how long it’s taken them to deal with the question, the attorney general’s guidelines could be in effect for a while.