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.

WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–2021 The Early Abacus is stored in jars and they are shaped in round spheres. Photo by Teresa M. Gomez.

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

WEST ORANGE, NJ 03–25–2021 Anthony Fernandes posed for portrait here, was pulled over for speeding when officers found a bag of weed in the trunk of his car.

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.

MONTCLAIR, NJ 02–21–2021 Carly Wolf headshot. Photo Courtesy Carly Wolf.

“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.

WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–2021 Cannabis in jar with text describing new laws that are being enacted. Photo by Teresa M. Gomez.

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.

TOTOWA, NJ 04–20–21 pictured here Salvatore Bellomo Attorney at Law. Photo courtesy Salvatore Bellomo.

“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.

WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–2021 Brandon Singh leaping here is shift lead at Care by Danks a Marijuana Dispensary. They sell medical marijuana, CBD, and marijuana for dogs as well. Photo by Teresa M. Gomez.
WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–2021 (Right) Brandon from Care by Danks, a marijuana and CBD dispensary shows some of the Marijuana products that are sold. (Left) One of the products is a glass pipe that some people use for smoking. Photos by Teresa Gomez.
WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–202 (Right) The hypnotic swirl pop pictured here is a CBD candy it does not cause a high and many recreational users enjoy the various flavors. (Left)The Early Abacus is stored in jars and they are shaped in round spheres. Photos by Teresa M. Gomez.
WEST ORANGE, NJ 03–25–2021 Anthony Fernandes posed here, shows where police found the bag of weed when he was pulled over. Photo by Teresa M. Gomez.
WEST FAIRFIELD, NJ 03–12–2021 Singh demonstrates the use of marijuana concentrate in a silicone bong. Photo by Teresa M. Gomez.

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.

Teresa Gomez and Tyler Harris are seniors at Montclair State University. They partnered up to work on an investigative multimedia piece for Spring 2021.