In early 2021, New Jersey enacted a law legalizing possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana. In doing so, it joined a growing list of states choosing to decriminalize or legalize marijuana use, even as the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Those pushing for legalization argued that arrests and prosecutions for small-time marijuana offenses were exploding prison populations, wasting law enforcement time and resources and, most importantly, negatively impacting the lives and futures of tens of thousands of people in New Jersey and other states. According to data recently released by the state judiciary, the law seems to be having a positive effect. There has been a substantial drop in marijuana-related arrests in the past year.
Warnings to small-time dealers instead of arrests
New Jersey law does not permit anyone to sell marijuana without a license. But the law legalizing possession included a provision that requires police to issue written warnings to small-time dealers the first time they are caught (instead of arresting them).
The results of this policy are clear, according to the data. In the two years before legalization, there were more than 2,100 arrests made for manufacturing/distributing/dispensing less than one ounce of marijuana. In the time since legalization, there have been a total of just 34 arrests for the same offense. Arrests for distributing larger amounts of marijuana (up to five pounds) have been reduced to approximately one-third of their pre-legalization levels.
Not knowing the law can still hurt you
While marijuana laws have relaxed considerably, people can still be arrested and prosecuted for many offenses related to cannabis, including possessing more than six ounces, unlicensed selling (after receiving a written warning) and growing your own marijuana. It is reasonable to assume that some people arrested for these offenses in the past year were unaware that they were violating the law.
Unfortunately, when it comes to criminal law, ignorance is not an excuse. If you’ve been charged with a drug crime related to marijuana or any other drug, it’s important to seek help from an experienced criminal defense attorney.