As recreational marijuana becomes legal in New Jersey; residents are learning how marijuana charges will be dealt
By: Teresa M. Gomez and Tyler Harris
On Feb. 22, 2021, New Jersey became the 13th state to legalize recreational marijuana after an overwhelming vote in the 2020 elections. The Senate passed the bill with a 22 to 12 vote and the Assembly passed it, 49 to 27, enabling the state to sign weed into law.
The Garden State has been known to have some of the highest arrest rates in the nation and the local New Jersey police officers are some of the toughest enforcers of the law. Many people in the past were charged harshly for small amounts of weed.
Anthony Fernandes, a junior at Montclair State University studying communications, was driving back from a camping trip with friends in 2019 when he got pulled over for speeding and police found a small bag of weed in the back of his car.
“I just came back from a camping trip at Woodstock. And so then of course he was like, ‘I have to search your car,’’ Fernandes said.
Fernandes was then charged for both speeding and possession of a non-controlled substance. He had only a dime’s worth of weed which costs about 10 dollars
Many individuals like Fernandes were targeted by law enforcement and charged harshly for small amounts of marijuana. Majority of those people have been people of color.
Carly Wolf, policy manager for the marijuana reform advocacy group NORML, has seen how these laws affected communities of color and has been a part of the push for change.
“There was an ACLU report done a couple of years ago that showed that out of all arrests for marijuana possession, over 80 or 90% were only for possession. So, I think this new legalization policy will definitely reduce arrests and hopefully reduce racial disparities in enforcement,” Wolf said.
For Fernandes, weed was legalized while he was on probation, and he needed to continue his court appointments and get drug tested every first Monday of the month until his charges could be dropped.
“I was still in the system… I really want to curse, but like, I just find it very ironic that like, this is, this is what happens,” Fernandes said.
Now residents of New Jersey who were previously charged will be exonerated of past charges if they have less than 6oz. Police are now prohibited from using the scent of marijuana to initiate interactions, and the underage penalty is now only a warning to young people and parents will not be notified until a second offense.
Salvatore Bellomo, an attorney at law at the Law Offices of Salvatore Bellomo LLC., in Totowa, has found that there was a shift in the marijuana laws that started with the legalization of medical marijuana. He says the provisions in regard to the parents of children under 18 can possibly do more harm than good.
“If it’s a second offense, then notification does come into play. I don’t know that I’m really all in favor of that area as much,” Bellomo said.
Although, this new legislation will assist many others like Fernandes.
“They took it off my record because it was my first charge and I followed all the rules that they had.” Fernandes said.
Fernandes believes these laws will also help communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by past marijuana use. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people are about three times more likely to be arrested than white people. In New Jersey Hunterdon County has the highest racial disparity in the state with Black people being arrested 13 times more likely for minor amounts of marijuana.
“It was helpful to a lot of communities, especially marginalized, oppressed communities. And that’s why, I mean, marijuana does help with that. I mean, it’s definitely helped me with certain things, so I can only imagine what it can help other people with, who have been more oppressed,” said Fernandes.
About the Authors
Teresa M. Gomez is a senior journalism major at Montclair State University. Currently, she is an Emma Bowen Fellow interning at WABC-TV in New York. She has produced for Localish and contributed to the Virtual Community Calendar, promos, and the Eyewitness News Vault. After graduation in the spring of 2021, she will be a Producer-in-residence for Tegna at 13WMAZ.
Tyler Harris is a senior at Montclair State University studying Sports Media. Tyler is graduating in August of 2021 and is looking forward to rejoining the Trenton Thunder Production Crew for his third season after the Spring semester.