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Urban Cities Setting Tone For NJ’s Legalization

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New Jersey’s Urban Cities Are Trying to Set the Tone for New Jersey’s Legalization

by Danielle Guercio

All eyes seem to be on New York State for impending legalization, but its next-door neighbor, New Jersey, announced its intentions quite a bit earlier. Just a few weeks have passed since Governor Murphy’s goal of legalization for New Jersey was delayed by a canceled vote, but as the days continue to pass with no legislation on the line, intentions seem to be the extent of the current progress.

New Jersey is a much more complex state than people from even the surrounding areas might understand. It is smaller towns and hamlets can be deeply segregated places, but the largest cities are among the most diverse in the country, rivaling only Queens, New York, as a first stop for many immigrant groups from around the world. Jersey City (JC), in particular, is a hyper-diverse, but still not fully integrated, city. With ethnic pockets from five continents, plenty of culture is brought to JC, and even more is created by its residents.

Image via Wikipedia

The Emerald Magazine caught up with Jersey City’s current mayor, Steven Fulop, to get some more intel on how the U.S.’s most diverse city three years in a row is approaching cannabis.

Advocates were sorely disappointed when the New Jersey State Legislature flopped once more on cannabis, citing a lack of support for the bill, but Fulop and his administration remain positive about the potential for this initiative to get sorted even this spring.

Fulop told the Emerald, “We’re still hopeful that it passes in the next month or so. We hear that they’re more than likely to bring it up for a vote, and once it passes, I think that we’re going to end up being one of the municipalities that supports and embraces all the components, whether it’s growing or whether it’s dispensaries. We want Jersey City to be engaged.”

Cannabis legalization at the state level looks more and more likely despite the challenges, and Fulop formed a coalition with Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka to encourage not only legalization but also social equity in the developing industry. When asked how this connection came about, Fulop said, “We’re good friends, so we speak about this regularly, and we said for the past year that we should be in lockstep on this, and that’s where we are.”

The two mayors govern New Jersey’s biggest cities, which have been historic centers of inequality for decades under different leadership. Activists have been working for just as long, not only to legalize cannabis but also to create a new culture that doesn’t suffer under the criminal justice system, as shown by their push for expungement of nonviolent cannabis arrests.

People who are pro-cannabis are generally pro-justice for cannabis-related criminal charges, but one challenge that the movement currently faces is in convincing the everyday resident, who might not be familiar with cannabis, to support a recreational program and social equity that brings previously policed communities into the fold. 

Fulop described how there hasn’t been much outright opposition, but he notes a distinct generational gap that could be overcome. He said, “I think that [in] the Jersey City community overall, for the most part people don’t have a problem [with reform], and they understand that it’s going to be a reality in New Jersey.”

These voters are simply not convinced—yet—but with the advocacy of pro-cannabis citizens and the Fulop administration’s backing, perhaps things will shift for the better. The mayor explained, “Some people still subscribe to the gateway-drug type of narrative. I think once you walk people through the realities, you get people off of that mindset.”

Education, outreach and making citizens aware of the potential benefits to the economy and to the healthcare system are needed to get them on board. Once the path to a fully formed industry is clear, Fulop will facilitate citizen involvement.

He said, “What I’ve tried to do, once it becomes legal in New Jersey, is communicate that we’re going to have more community meetings, that the council people in each ward district will drive the process on where those dispensaries are located. We want to make sure that there is community input there.”

When things were heating up, there was a flurry of lobbying activity, but the mayor’s administration has put it on hold temporarily. Fulop said, “There’s no shortage of lobbyists that have reached out.” This means that the corporate cannabis contingent is definitely testing the waters, but they might not find purchase in Jersey City without social equity, especially if activists secure these programs as desired.

He continued, “The ones that seemed to hire the largest lobbying efforts and have the most partners seem to be larger corporate growers from out of state that would partner with local residents or local community groups or activists, and they would try to have some sort of local flavor.”

For now, the simmer has settled, and the vote could still happen, but the April excitement has died down. Though there is a chance that the recreational program could still pass at the state level this year, activist groups like the Black Democrats have vowed to block anything that doesn’t involve points of entry for people of color, but specifically benefits those who have been harmed by cannabis prohibition.

Jacob V. Hudnut (Jake), Chief Prosecutor
Jacob V. Hudnut (Jake), Chief Prosecutor. Image via JerseyCityNJ.gov

This is where Jersey City came out as a policy leader. In July 2018, Fulop and the Prosecutor Jake Hudnut pushed the state to allow their offices to stop prosecuting cannabis charges, effectively decriminalizing the plant in Jersey City. Though there have been hiccups, this is the first of many steps they’re planning to assuage the grinding inequality that continues to penalize primarily people of color.

Mayor Fulop spoke of “Broader expungement narratives for New Jersey” and all of its cities, saying, “Originally, there were much smaller cannabis quantities–they expanded the quantities. Mayor Baraka and I think that all non-violent offenders should be entitled to expungement.”

Looking at the funds on the line for businesses that are able to procure the licenses and startup fees to operate, the administration acknowledges the elephant in the room. “I think it’s hypocritical to say that you know this individual was arrested some time ago for selling marijuana on a corner, and now today we’re going to legalize it for a corporation to sell on the very same corner and the same quantity. One person is entitled to make millions of dollars, and the other one still is struggling to get their record expunged. From my standpoint, the expungement component needs to be expanded.”

The intentions are there, but is this being put into practice? The mayor claimed that the JCPD hasn’t been as aggressive about cannabis as in years past. “The police department has clearly de-prioritized marijuana. That’s indisputable if you look at the quantity of arrests, and you would see that trending downwards aggressively.”

He continued, “We have just better things to do with our police resources than be chasing around small quantities of marijuana, and that hasn’t changed.”

Though we couldn’t find accompanying data, they are at least consistently linking expungement with the genesis of the legal cannabis industry—one of the biggest demands of social equity activists.

Fulop said, “We’ve been one of the leaders of the state, and in the country for that matter. That being said, there’s always more we can do. Our job isn’t done by any stretch of the imagination. There’s still people living in poverty, there’s still people that are being arrested for marijuana-type charges and small drug offenses, and I think that we have work to do, so you know we’re going to continue to be outspoken and advocate.”

Equity is more complex than merely beginning to address the harms of the past and present. Another thread is investing the tax revenue directly in communities that suffered under bad policy. Their plan appears to be using tax funds in targeted ways that improve life for Jersey City’s under-served populations. Fulop said, “We can fund a lot of different programs and health initiatives, and I think I’d like to dedicate the money particularly for our housing and health-and-human-services division because I think that would be the best place for it to be utilized.”

As New Jersey and New York continue to be neck and neck in legalization efforts for 2019, it will be interesting to see what Jersey City does with these policies. It is a mere seven-minute ride from sister city New York, and if the latter doesn’t take this opportunity to develop a robust cannabis industry that accounts for prohibition’s mistakes, Jersey City just might.

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