New Jersey Prosecutors: Legalize Marijuana in the Garden State

By David Cruz

Jon-Henry Barr is a municipal prosecutor in Clark and Kenilworth and has prosecuted his share of drug cases over a 14-year career. But a case last year changed his mind about his role in the war on drugs. The case concerned a young woman whose attorney claimed police had illegally searched her.

“This particular case took several days of testimony. I had to put several police officers on the stand. I had to do some legal research, argue the case and at the end of the case, the judge agreed,” recalled Barr.

Barr estimates thousands of dollars were spent to prosecute the case. The crime? Possession of one joint. It was a hollow victory that got Barr to thinking that the war on drugs — marijuana at least — was a futile exercise, wasting taxpayer dollars and making criminals of otherwise upstanding citizens. So in February, Barr, who is president of the 150-member New Jersey Municipal Prosecutors Association, put a resolution before his membership to support of Sen. Nick Scutari’s proposed bill to legalize marijuana.

“All we’re really doing is punishing people for possession of marijuana, which most of us don’t see as being that much worse than possession of alcohol,” he said.

But Gov. Christie is of a different mindset. While he implemented the country’s strictest medical marijuana law, he has said repeatedly, and his spokesperson reiterated today, that he won’t do more.

“I will not decriminalize marijuana. I will not permit recreational use. I will not legalize marijuana because I think that is the wrong message to send to children in this state and to young adults,” the governor told a crowd at a town hall meeting in Flemington recently.

Nick DeMauro is a former Bergen County cop and president and CEO of New Jersey DARE. He says legalizing marijuana is a slippery slope fraught with unintended consequences.

“Marijuana is a major gateway drug,” he said. “We can’t forget that. I mean look at the number of people across New Jersey who are dying over heroin abuse, and they’re starting with marijuana. We have to deal with those issues aggressively. We can’t give in, and we are giving in.”

Barr, a Republican, says the jury’s still out on the gateway theory.

“I originally agreed with the governor. I no longer do,” he said. “What we have now is the functional equivalent of prohibition as it was in the 1920s with alcohol.”

DeMauro says legalization could have dire consequences. “If it becomes available for any adult to purchase,” he said, “we’re going to have a major epidemic in this state and I don’t think we’re ready for it.”

The climate in New Jersey may be more permissive toward marijuana use but there’s no popular consensus on legalization. And so long as the governor remains adamantly opposed, supporters of legalization still have some ways to go before buying marijuana becomes as easy as going to the local liquor store.