New Jersey’s weed stalemate highlights poor relationship between law enforcement and minorities

Photo: J.E. Reich/Green Rush Daily.

New Jersey’s state legislature is currently trying to legalize and decriminalize weed, but they seem to have run into yet another obstacle.

There’s two separate bills for legalization and decriminalization. The legalization bill said any minor (under 21) caught with possession of cannabis — the term for legally obtained weed — can face charges. The decriminalization bill, however, removed penalties for minors caught with possession of marijuana — the term for illegally obtained weed.

As a result of these conflicting statutes, possession of weed would be effectively legal among minors. Governor Murphy says this was not the goal of the weed referendum voters passed.

A “clean up” bill was introduced providing clear repercussions for minor possession, but there were concerns over how those repercussions could exacerbate racial discrimination.

The current problem the NJ state legislature is working to solve is how to ensure there are repercussions in place for possession of weed among minors without exacerbating a racially discriminatory application of those repercussions.

What will define the legacy of the state legislature’s decision is not how or to what extent they choose to punish minors for possession, but how and to what extent law enforcement — an institution which, in the eyes of many minority communities, has lost its legitimacy and trustworthiness — chooses to enforce these policies.

Pew Research showed that in 2018, “92% of marijuana arrests were for possession and 8% were for selling or manufacturing.”

An analysis by the ACLU of New York showed that between 2002 and 2019, an overwhelming majority of people who underwent the stop-and-frisk procedure were not only innocent, but were innocent minorities.

On top of that, the death of George Floyd sparked thousands of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. A Gallup study conducted three months after Floyd’s death shows only 56% of White adults and 19% of Black adults “say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police.”

A 2007 RAND Corporation study showed that while raw statistics suggest large racial disparities among pedestrian stops, there were “legitimate factors that explain much of the difference between the frisk rate of black suspects and the frisk rate of white suspects.” The study concluded that the racial disparities between black and white suspects “implies that a large-scale restructuring of [policing] policies and procedures is unwarranted.”

We have a problem on our hands: Minorities are feeling an unfair bias based on raw statistics. Whether or not those raw statistics are being interpreted properly by the public is irrelevant to government institutions, but it’s a legitimate conversation that needs to be had in the public sphere.

As that conversation is had, law enforcement and government institutions are responsible for choosing one of two options: (1) deflect the feelings of minority communities by passing legislation that — from their perspective — puts them at greater risk of discrimination, or (2) pass the legislation with a comprehensive plan aimed at re-legitimizing law enforcement to minority communities.

The second is the route they should take.

If there’s one thing we all know about the right thing to do in any situation, it’s often the most difficult of our options. Legitimizing authority is one of the most difficult, tedious things that can be done.

People need to feel as if their voice affects the decisions of authority. If not, that authority — in this case, law enforcement — will never become legitimate in their eyes.

For once in their lives, minority communities need to have reason to believe that law enforcement is unequivocally on their side, and that can’t be done through terry stops or other official means of police business that these communities feel singled out by.

Would our teacher’s be successful if they worked only within the parameters their contract prescribes? Would small businesses flourish if their employees weren’t friendly to each other outside the workplace? Can a real estate agent succeed if she sticks solely to the procedures laid out in the textbook? The answer to all these questions: no.

Every one of the jobs listed above requires a profound dedication from each individual. A dedication that drives them to work after-hours and outside the confines of the job description.

This isn’t to say police officers aren’t dedicated; it’s to say they need to integrate themselves as a part of the community, not just watchdogs of it. To say it’s time to reevaluate not only how and to what extent policies will be enforced, but how and to what extent will law enforcement go beyond simply enforcing the law?

Best-selling author and staff writer at The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how former police chief of the NYPD, Joanne Jaffe, reestablished the legitimacy of law enforcement in crime-ridden Brownsville, New York. Jaffe had developed the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program (J-RIP), designed to push kids in the right direction instead of outright punishing them for their actions. In order for the program to work, she had to begin the process of legitimizing law enforcement.

Jaffe engaged with her community by bringing turkeys to the houses of kids who were, in terms of the law, bad. They were shocked. Families who were otherwise hostile to law enforcement welcomed them into their homes with open arms.

The total number of robberies in Brownsville dropped from over 120 in 2006 to under 40 in 2011. Robbery arrests of J-RIP youth dropped from over 350 to under 25 after three years into the program.

Now look at New Jersey: we’re dealing with marijuana, not violent crime.

If New Jersey’s law enforcement institution makes a formidable effort towards legitimizing itself in the eyes of minority communities, not only do I think we won’t have to worry about discriminatory application of the law, but I’m confident communities will develop a deeper respect for the laws they know they had a say in.

The solution lies in humans, not mere institutions or policies.

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Santino D'Agostino

Santino D'Agostino

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