Marijuana Reform and the (faulty, racist) Decriminalization Model

Cannabis prohibition is wrong. Our marijuana laws are racist, backwards, and terribly expensive.

More selfishly, I’m 45-years-old. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. I’ve never gambled. I don’t even drink coffee. But I like to smoke cannabis. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Assembly Oversight Committee held hearings this week to weigh the pros and cons of cannabis legalization. This hearing officially kicked off the legislative debate to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use. It was just an informational session, no vote was taken.

Much testimony supported ending cannabis prohibition in NJ, to tax and regulate adult consumption. There were naysayers too: the Just Say No Crowd was out in force. There’s also the decriminalization (or decrim) option that’s being pushed by Senators Ron Rice (D-Newark) and Robert Singer (R-Lakewood.)

This may seem like a reasonable compromise for now. But decrim is a distraction designed to derail the legalization juggernaut. It kinda reminds me of the time politicians like Rice and Singer dangled civil unions in our faces while voting against gay marriage.

There are many reasons why decriminalizing cannabis is not the ticket. I’ll share as many reason as I can fit into 1,000 words.


Worst possible messengers. I wish I could find the speech Senator Rice delivered when he cast his NO vote for medical marijuana back in 2009. And by speech I mean a rambling Reefer Madness Word Salad oozing with resentments. To Senator Rice, legalizing medical cannabis represented an extension of the white man’s oppression of black people. Ditto legalization for recreational purposes.

That’s a bitterly ironic conclusion considering how our pot laws have for so long been weaponized against minority populations. Let’s be honest: they ain’t locking up white girls in Princeton for smoking a joint.

So it’s hard to take Sen Rice seriously as a messenger of meaningful drug reform. Still, the fact that erstwhile teetotaler Ron Rice now claims to support decriminalization and expanded medical marijuana shows how quickly the landscape has changed on this topic.

“The silver lining is there’s new support for decriminalization that wasn’t there before,” Trenton lobbyist Bill Caruso said. “But also efforts like medical marijuana expansion which Senator Rice previously opposed. This represents a sea change in opinion towards marijuana reform.”

He’s right. Cannabis decriminalization plus expanded access for medical marijuana is a compromise many advocates might have happily accepted at any point during the (notoriously anti-pot) Chris Christie administration.

But that was then.


Social Justice. Decriminilization is basically legalization for the upper class. When decrim passed in Philly, rich kids were posting pics of their cannabis violations on Instagram as a badge of honor. Meanwhile, poor kids went to jail because they couldn’t pay their fines. (Up to $500 in Senator Rice’s version of reform.)

What happens if you can’t pay?

“You get arrested,” said Dianne Houenou of ACLU. “In New York, they decriminalized in the 70s. They still make 100,000 arrests per year.”

Our drug laws disproportionately hurt black people. Decriminalization makes those racial disparities even worse. Because decrim is still a parole violation. You can still lose your kids over dercrim. Police still have the option to arrest. And decrim still leaves a record for anyone who gets in trouble for cannabis, a burden we all share.

Worst of all, decrim keep marijuana sales underground which means no tax revenue for cities ravaged by the War on Drugs.


Decrim Empowers bad people. Tom Moran: “Decriminalization is the best news possible for gangs and dealers. They would continue to control the street trade in drugs. And business would boom since buyers would no longer have to worry about being arrested.”

Prohibitionists like Senator Rice warn of the perils of “Big Marijuana” should legalization take hold. But let’s look at “Big Marijuana” now: cartels, dealers, gangs.

No thanks. I’ll take a smartly-regulated industry instead.


Mandated Rehab!? This bill included provisions that force rehab onto those ensnared in Senator Rice’s decrim law in. Never mind that every person pushed into rehab for pot takes a bed from someone addicted to opiates, a clear and present danger that’s killing 2,000 NJ residents per year.

Meanwhile, states where cannabis is legal report 25% fewer opioid-related fatalities. Apparently in places where people have an alternative to prescription opiates, better outcomes can and do happen. 


Stop & Frisk run amok. Decrim can be widely interpreted. In some cases, the decriminalization of cannabis simply means de-prioritizing pot arrests. In other cases municipal budgets become dependent on civil fines and tickets issued to minority communities. (See Ferguson, MO)

Decriminalizing marijuana might go a long way in Montclair and Shrewsbury. But for those living in places like Paterson and Camden, fines up to $500 will land far too many people (mostly young black men) in jail.



Jay Lassiter’s award-winning podcast HEROIN UNCUT, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CRISIS is on iTunes and Google Play.  You can binge-watch Season 1 in less than 3 hours. If you’re a lawmaker or a chief of staff or a legislative aide, this especially means you!  He’s on Twitter @Jay_Lass.



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  • Hamburger Helper

    NJ doesn’t have enough impaired drivers on the roads

    • Bill Brennan

      DUI is already unlawful and no one is trying to legalize DUI. If people are not smoking Cannabis because it is against the law – why would they drive under the influence? That’s also against the law. Your argument makes no sense

  • Rory Wells

    Maybe some of us don’t want to see an increase of drugs in our communities. You say they are already doing it. Of course but when you legalize it and commercialize it you get more. As an African American I don’t want more black and brown people using drugs backed by corporate money. I don’t like the disproportionate arrests, and we can work on that. but don’t tell me the answer to our problems is more drugs. It is not.

    • Bill Brennan

      What are your plans for the disproportionate arrests that “we can work on”? How about legalizing Cannabis and setting citizens free? Why would you oppose a regulated Cannabis dispensary? Are you afraid of a small plant jumping out of it’s container and “messing up you mind”?

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