SOCIAL ISSUES

Pot and pastors: Why faith leaders are getting involved with legalized weed

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy stressed how legalizing marijuana would impact criminal justice reform in his inaugural address.

“A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces criminal justice reform comprehensively, and that includes a process to legalize marijuana,” he said.

But what Murphy couldn’t anticipate was just how tedious a process it would be. Now, nearly a year later, the criminal justice reform portion of this legislation could be the very sticking point that holds it up.

“It’s very disturbing to us that marijuana legalization could move in such a way that makes tens or hundreds of rich white males after disenfranchising, putting in poverty and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of black folks,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church Woodbury and founder of Salvation and Social Justice.

With lawmakers slated to move legalization bills in the coming weeks, those with an eye on social justice want to make sure it’s a key part of the conversation. It may seem a little unorthodox to talk about marijuana within the confines of a sanctuary, but that’s exactly what Boyer is calling on fellow faith-based leaders to do.

“Our members and our churches’ members, there are a lot of people there who are listening to the minister, listening to the pastor, so we want to inform the pastors, inform the ministers on how to look at this topic,” said Rev. Micah McCreary, president of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary.

“We’ve had extensive conversations with all the members of the black legislative caucus. We’ve had extensive conversations with the Senate president, so we’re trusting that he’s going to do the right thing. A little concerned about this push for Monday. We have not seen the bill, which concerns us greatly,” said Boyer.

If you haven’t heard the data, it’s stark. African-Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both use it at similar rates. Advocates want to see automatic and retroactive expungement written into any bill that lands on Gov. Murphy’s desk.

“We wanted to see some of the money generated through revenue — go back to the some of the communities impacted by mass incarceration and marijuana prohibition, and, you know, make sure there was a clear path for people from vulnerable communities to get into the industry,” said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey.

“We’re also concerned that there be some recognition or allocation for prevention and early intervention. We have a lot of things upstream or downstream going toward overdose prevention and drug addiction, but we’re working with faith leaders and Sen. Vitale on an initiative that would introduce screenings in high schools across all of New Jersey,” said New Jersey Citizen Action health care program director Maura Collinsgru.

Despite their political activism and influence, the members here tonight say the bill is being rushed. But does Boyer feel he have enough influence to hold up votes if the bill isn’t where he wants?

“Well that remains to be seen,” he said. “I think on a normal day, with a normal bill, we absolutely do. I think we have a decent amount of folks who have interest in seeing this done right.”

Negotiations over certain items like the sales tax and a regulatory committee are said to be stalled between the governor and Legislature. Still, the committee votes are scheduled for Nov. 26, and you can expect a lot of lobbying from groups like Boyer’s before the final bill is decided.