A class-action lawsuit has been filed in New Jersey that alleges disproportionately arresting people of color for cannabis prohibition possession was unlawful.
The lawsuit, entitled Drayton v. State of New Jersey, was filed in the Superior Court in Mercer County yesterday. The Plaintiffs will seek to vindicate their rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
“Mark Kancher and I are honored to represent Plaintiffs, Arnell Drayton, and Marquise Jennings, in their putative class-action lawsuit against the State of New Jersey for unlawful discrimination,” said attorney William Riback who filed the case.
Riback’s theory is that “the State of New Jersey knew or should have known that it was discriminating against people of color, absent any legitimate need (unlawful discrimination).”
In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union found that people of color were three times more likely to be arrested than whites.
“This discrimination served no public interest because it has long been known that cannabis is neither dangerous nor physically addictive,” Riback argued.
“New Jersey’s policy and practice to discriminate were decidedly against the public interest because it served to incapacitate people of color with heavy fines,” he added.
In the suit, he details that the history of cannabis use goes back 4,000 years (described in my book Cannabis 101!) He explained that Harry Anslinger, who ran the precursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the 1930s was motivated in part by racism to make cannabis illegal. The suit quotes him saying, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” among other racist statements.
Riback points that, like other states, New Jersey made cannabis illegal in 1933, before the federal cannabis prohibition went into effect in 1937.
He noted that since cannabis is federally illegal, it has been difficult to study. Nonetheless, he cites a few government studies such as the Shafer Commission that were done that showed cannabis has no harmful effects. Riback points out in the suit that science has never justified cannabis prohibition since it is neither addictive nor dangerous.
In 1973, New Jersey commissioned its own study that showed cannabis was not harmful. Nonetheless, the Comprehensive Reform Drug Act of 1986 (CRDA) was passed in 1986 at the height of the War on Drugs to up the ante in cannabis prohibition. The law imposed harsh cannabis penalties establishing a $1,000 fine.
The cannabis prohibition lawsuit seeks to provide a remedy to those who suffered from discrimination due to the CRDA.
School Zones and Cannabis Prohibition
The cannabis prohibition discrimination lawsuit is especially critical of the enhanced penalties for cannabis crimes committed in drug-free school zones. It notes that almost the entirety of the minority-majority cities of Newark, Camden, and Jersey City are largely covered by these zones.
Cannabis prohibition penalties are even harsher if one is caught in a school zone. Distribution within a school zone came with a mandatory one-year jail sentence, even if the defendant was unaware they were in a school zone. It does not matter if the school wasn’t in session nor if the defendant had no intent to distribute to a child.
In 2005, the New Jersey Sentencing Commission was assembled under former Governor Dick Codey to study the issue. They found that “the disparate impact was astounding, unjustified, and its recommended changes were ignored,” the suit says. In addition, the commission found that few caught in a zone intended to distribute to children. Furthermore, few were caught on actual school property versus the drug-free zone.
The commission noted that drug-free zones in the suburbs are better marked than those in cities. In addition, because suburban towns are more spread out, the zones encompass a smaller percentage of the town’s overall area. Because of the nature of the cities, the school zone policy became racially discriminatory since minorities in urban centers were far more likely to be arrested in school zones than whites in the suburbs.
The Sentencing Commission said that the drug arrests were discriminatory and school zones should be shrunk to 200 ft. However, the legislature did not act on the commission’s findings. Codey was not in favor of cannabis legalization at the time.
With the advent of cannabis legalization, the State has admitted cannabis prohibition was wrong. It’s noteworthy that Governor Phil Murphy said, “By legalizing adult-use marijuana first and foremost, we can reverse the inequity and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies. We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed so that they can move forward.”
He also noted the severity of the impact on someone’s life of a cannabis possession conviction. For example, it makes it much harder to secure good jobs and housing.
What’s more, under Governor Phil Murphy, former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal stopped Jersey City and other towns from decriminalizing cannabis as Jersey City took the initiative. Instead, prosecution of arrests was stopped briefly.
“Through our present leadership, New Jersey has laudably decriminalized cannabis which will finally end decades of discrimination,” Riback said. “The present leadership seeks to remediate the past discrimination by providing those directly impacted with cannabis commerce licenses. But this will be an infinitesimally small percentage of all those consumers who were guilty of cannabis possession. There is even talk of allocating cannabis tax revenue to impact zones. While that is appropriate to remedy some of the aggregate effects of the war waged on inner cities, those directly impacted are essentially omitted.”
The suit also points out that cannabis prohibition did nothing to stop arrests nor lower the rate of cannabis consumption.
“They’re not stopping anyone from smoking weed,” Riback said.