N.J. won't prosecute any weed cases until September. It's a big step toward legalization.
In a move that will affect thousands of defendants and millions of residents, New Jersey's attorney general has announced an immediate adjournment of all marijuana cases in municipal courts statewide until at least September.
In a letter to prosecutors obtained exclusively by NJ Advance Media, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote that he was asking "that all municipal prosecutors in New Jersey seek an adjournment until September 4, 2018, or later, of any matter involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court" so that his office could develop "appropriate guidance" for prosecutors.
The Attorney General's statement did not say if arrests for marijuana possession would also be put on hold.
Meanwhile, a source in the state Senate also told NJ Advance Media on Monday that a bill legalizing adult-use marijuana sponsored by state Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union -- himself a municipal prosecutor in the city of Linden -- was expected to reach the Senate for consideration by September as well.
Assuming the Senate passes the bill, the combination of the two actions could effectively end prosecution of marijuana possession in New Jersey permanently.
Nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized weed altogether, but over 50 localities in a dozen states have enacted municipal laws or resolutions either fully or partially decriminalizing minor cannabis possession offenses, according to the Washington D.C.-based non-profit NORML.
The deal with prosecutors has broad implications for New Jersey's courts and for New Jerseyans themselves.
In May, NJ Cannabis Insider reported that of the nearly 36,000 people who were arrested on marijuana charges in New Jersey in 2016, more than 32,000 were charged for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
New Jersey has the second-highest marijuana arrest rate in the country, behind only Wyoming, and the third-highest total number of weed-related arrests, following Texas and New York, according to 2016 FBI crime data.
New Jersey also saw the largest increase in marijuana arrests from 2015 to 2016.
Such marijuana possession convictions can cause offenders to lose their homes, cost them financial aid, or see the revocation of their driver's licenses.
The deal with the attorney general comes after a dramatic week of see-sawing announcements and contradictions issued by the prosecutor for the state's second-largest city, Jersey City's Jake Hudnut, and the office of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
Last week, Jersey City's newly installed prosecutor, Hudnut, announced his office would seek to downgrade some marijuana charges to non-criminal offenses, seek the outright dismissal of low-level marijuana charges and divert those defendants with prior drug arrests and signs of addiction to the city's community court.
Almost immediately however, the state attorney general's office responded with its own contradictory statement, warning Hudnut that "you do not have the legal authority to decriminalize marijuana or otherwise refuse to criminally prosecute all marijuana-related offenses in the municipal courts of Jersey City," adding that only the Legislature could take such action.
The situation in Jersey City came to an impasse when Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop backed his own prosecutor in a July 20 tweet, saying that "we respect the letter but don't agree."
A source said a meeting between Grewal, Hudson County prosecutor Esther Suarez and Jersey City's prosecutor Hudnut was called on Monday at the satellite offices of the Bergen County prosecutor's office in Paramus.
While Hudnut was pressing for effective decriminalization, Hudson County prosecutor Suarez argued for a more hard-line approach, according to a source familiar with the talks.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office was not immediately available for comment.
In an emailed statement on Tuesday, Hudnut, praised Grewal's move, and also seemed to suggest he wasn't done pushing the envelope on marijuana reform.
"In adjourning all marijuana cases across New Jersey while a directive is prepared, Attorney General Grewal has put himself at the national forefront of progressive prosecutors," wrote Hudnut. "I am looking forward to working closely with him in the coming weeks on this directive, as well as on other issues affecting all of our state's municipal courts."
On Tuesday, at an unrelated press conference on school funding held in Cliffside Park, the governor declined to answer a question about whether arrests for marijuana possession would continue in light of the Attorney General's guidance.
"I'll tell you what we want the final product to be -- and we were just doing some business walking in here -- which is adult use legalization, sooner rather than later," said Murphy, gesturing to the Senate president Sweeney standing behind him. "I'm all in."
In June, Gov. Phil Murphy endorsed federal legislation that would stop the federal government from enforcing anti-marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug, and has been pushing for legalization to occur within New Jersey by year's end.
Efforts by state lawmakers to rush adult use legalization through by tying it to the more broadly popular expansion of medical marijuana failed earlier this summer.
However, now Trenton's lawmakers are under increasing pressure to legalize as a newly released study commissioned by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just recommended New York make marijuana legal, saying the benefits of legalization vastly outweigh potential risks.