While protesters gathered on the State House Steps to Rally For Justice with the New Jersey Clergy Association and later to demand driver’s licenses for undocumented workers with Drive Safe NJ, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first ever hearing on the legalization of recreational marijuana. In May of 2015 the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ released a statement announcing it’s consideration of the issue as a matter of criminal and social justice. This summer, UULMNJ officially joined the coalition New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Nicholas Scutari called Monday’s hearing which was closed to invited testimony only. The committee heard from coalition members from diverse backgrounds and causes including ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer; New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors’ Association President Jon-Henry Barr; psychiatrist and clinical associate professor of medicine Dr. David Nathan; Retired New Jersey State Police Lieutenant and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition member Nicholas Bucci; former executive director to the Assembly Majority Bill Caruso; Executive Director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey Ken Wolski; NAACP New Jersey State Conference President Richard Smith; Lazaro Cardenas of Latino Action Network; and UULMNJ Executive Director Rev. Craig Hirshberg who closed the hearing with a call to act because it is the moral thing to do for New Jersey. All who testified agreed that it is time to end prohibition. Again.
In a press conference prior to the hearing, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer stated, “It is time to stop arresting New Jerseyans for an activity that the majority of Americans believe should be legal. Arrests for marijuana possession in New Jersey are spiraling out of control and are at an all-time high. It’s time to put an end to tens of thousands of wasteful arrests a year and to replace this broken system with a safe, controlled and regulated one.” NAACP New Jersey State Conference president, Richard Smith agreed, adding, “Black individuals in New Jersey are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana as Whites, despite similar usage rates. This is a civil rights issue.”
During her testimony, UULMNJ Executive Director, Rev. Craig Hirshberg, not only agreed with these statements but linked marijuana arrests to institutionalized poverty. “Under the current drug laws, the potential incarceration and the criminal records resulting from minor drug possession charges can have devastating effects upon the life opportunities of many young adults, and especially people of color. Current drug laws are making criminals of and causing undue and unjust punishment to many persons who have no criminal intent in the use of marijuana,” said Rev. Hirshberg. “The cruel realities of these minor drug arrests have been limited employment, denial of educational financial aid, public housing refusal, destabilized family relationships and lost future income for those caught up in these policies. Research shows that people with criminal records can expect to earn 30 to 40% less in their lifetime, thus contributing to an institutionalized cycle of poverty.”
None of the panelists were suggesting or endorsing the use of marijuana as a recreational substance. But all panelists were in agreement with Mr. Cardenas when he said “You don’t have to be pro marijuana to be against its prohibition.” Rev. Craig closed the panel testimony by posing a question to the committee, which included Senators Ray Lesniak and Loretta Weinberg, “My question to this committee is whether the detrimental impact upon the lives of those found guilty of minor drug offenses reflects the intended values and ideals of a just New Jersey judicial system. I personally think we can do better. I hope you will agree and revise the current marijuana drug laws.”
The committee members posed insightful questions to the panelists and, for the most part, appeared to listen with intent and care. Senator Joe Kyrillos was quick to assert himself as being against the legalization of cannabis. The Senator seemed to be uninterested in hearing the expert testimony and left halfway through the hearing. Senator Kip Bateman, a moderate, was present for the entire hearing and, though initially wanted local prosecutors to testify despite their not prosecuting marijuana charges, thanked the panelists for opening his eyes to new information about marijuana use and the effect of the current drug laws which he will consider with an open mind.
Rev. Hirshberg’s full testimony may be downloaded here and read at the bottom of this page. To learn more about the UULMNJ position on marijuana regulation and taxation read the statement and congregational study guide, produced by our Criminal Justice Task Force.
A note from Rev. Craig after the hearing:
Our UULMNJ position to this issue is from a social justice perspective based on our work on mass incarceration. After hearing the expert testimony yesterday, there is no question in my mind that this is the way to go. It was accompanied by testimony of municipal law enforcement, medical community, ACLU, NAACP and others. Obviously, this will be a longer battle, and nothing will happen within the next two years, but that gives us time to expand public understanding of this very publicly misunderstood issue.
NJ.com: Legalizing marijuana in N.J. is a social justice issue, supporters say (http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/11/legalizing_marijuana_in_nj.html) (Featuring Dominick Bucci, Craig Hirshberg, Richard Smith, Udi Ofer, Latino Action Network, NAACP)
Village Voice: NEW JERSEY LEADS NEW YORK IN THE ‘RACE’ TO LEGALIZE RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA (http://www.villagevoice.com/news/new-jersey-leads-new-york-in-the-race-to-legalize-recreational-marijuana-7922701) (featuring Evan Nison, ACLU, Nick Bucci/LEAP, J.H. Barr)
News12: NEWS CONFERENCE ON MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION (video of the full press conference!) http://newjersey.news12.com/multimedia/news-conference-on-marijuana-legalization-1.11132383
News12: New Jersey Lawmakers discuss marijuana legalization (http://newjersey.news12.com/news/new-jersey-lawmakers-discuss-legalization-of-marijuana-for-recreational-use-1.11128940) (featuring J.H. Barr, David Nathan)
Testimony before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee
in Support of The Legalization, Taxation and Regulation of Marijuana by Rev. Craig Hirshberg
November 16, 2015
Chairman Scutari members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My name is Rev. Craig Hirshberg, and I am the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ), representing Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout our state. Thank you for holding this public hearing on the Legalization, Taxation and Regulations of Marijuana. This is an issue that is grossly misunderstood by the general public. Hearings such as this will help educate all about the devastating effects of the current marijuana drug laws.
UULMNJ supports the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana for adults. As a faith community, we take this position with considerable forethought and awareness of its implications for society. We do not endorse the recreational use of marijuana, just as we would not endorse the recreational use of tobacco or alcohol. Our position is based on a concern for social justice and for a more compassionate response to minor drug offences.
In 2013, there were almost 700,000 marijuana arrests in the US, more than 45% of all drug arrests which was more than all violent crimes combined. Criminalization of marijuana and the resulting incarceration and stigmatization cripples lives and serves to increase rather than constructively address the problems of drug use. In plain terms, the current drug laws are not working. In an attempt to address one problem, they have created a much more significant problem fraught with collateral consequences.
Under the current drug laws, the potential incarceration and the criminal records resulting from minor drug possession charges can have devastating effects upon the life opportunities of many young adults, and especially people of color. Current drug laws are making criminals of and causing undue and unjust punishment to many persons who have no criminal intent in the use of marijuana. The cruel realities of these minor drug arrests have been limited employment, denial of educational financial aid, public housing refusal, destabilized family relationships and lost future income for those caught up in these policies. Research shows that people with criminal records can expect to earn 30 to 40% less in their lifetime, thus contributing to an institutionalized cycle of poverty.
The true indictment of this system is the fact that marijuana arrests disproportionately target and affect people of color by rates nearly four times greater than others despite data showing very similar usage rates across racial and ethnic lines. African Americans and Latinos make up 27% of the population and 80% of those incarcerated. The state of New Jersey typically accounts for more than 20,000 possession arrests annually. 2010 statistics show arrest disparities from two to five times greater for people of color. New Jersey law makers should be morally outraged at the undeniably discriminatory implementation of these laws, whatever the reason. The laws need to be changed.
Finally, I believe the legalization of marijuana will ironically result in greater public health and safety. Legalization and regulation will take marijuana off the streets and establish standards and regulations designed to protect the public from the underworld of unscrupulous drug dealers. It will free police officers to address more serious crimes. But most importantly, from the funds the state will save from not processing drug arrests and the additional tax revenue the state will receive from the sale of legalized marijuana, New Jersey will have enough funds to provide very aggressive drug education initiatives designed to discourage youth from marijuana use. It can also fund sorely needed increased mental health and drug treatment programs. Drug education and treatment components are necessary requirements of any new policy.
My question to this committee is whether the detrimental impact upon the lives of those found guilty of minor drug offences reflects the intended values and ideals of a just New Jersey judicial system. I personally think we can do better. I hope you will agree and revise the current marijuana drug laws.
Laurice Grae-Hauck is the Outreach Coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ.