A campaign is underway to make Asbury Park the first city in New Jersey to legalize marijuana.
The Help Not Handcuffs campaign is calling on the Mayor and City Council to pass a resolution calling for the legalization of marijuana to avert the harms of prohibition and take responsibility for a nearly ubiquitous black market substance; and to the extent possible, make marijuana prohibition the lowest law enforcement priority until legalization is implemented.
The effort is being supported by a key group of civic leaders, namely the Asbury Park Democrats.
“We would like the City Council to lend their support by passing a resolution and by also making marijuana possession a low priority for city police,” said Randy Thompson, a city resident an organizer of Help Not Handcuffs.
He said the resolution would be a “ceremonious one” since marijuana is illegal throughout the state but would go a long way toward supporting the cause.
Acting Police Chief Anthony Salerno said his department will not weigh in on the legalized marijuana issue.
“All members in law enforcement take a sworn oath to enforce the law not decide the law or interpret it the way we choose. The laws are made by the legislative branch and our duty is to enforce them. Law enforcement is and should be an apolitical group that is entrusted to enforce the will of the people.
“With our mission well established under the law, the Asbury Park Police Department will not weigh in on the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). Instead, we will remind all people who live, work, visit, or play in Asbury Park that, so long as marijuana is illegal in this state, we will continue to aggressively arrest and criminally charge for illegal possession, sale and or consumption of cannabis, as with all illegal narcotics,” he said.
In a press release, Help Not Handcuffs said “Marijuana prohibition has a disparate negative impact on racial minorities, migrants and the most vulnerable residents; these populations constitute a majority of the population of Asbury Park.”
“(Criminalizing marijuana) is a waste of police resources and does direct harm to people, all the while marijuana is readily available on the street without a hint of control or regulation, making prevention of its use by adolescents impossible,” Thompson said.
“It’s an issue that Asbury Park should lead on by calling for legalization of a readily available black market substance, not sit idly by and allow harm to continue,” he said.
Help Not Handcuffs issued a fact sheet that states 51.3 percent of Asbury Park’s residents are African-Americans, who are arrested at more than three times the rate of their Caucasian counterparts despite using marijuana at the same rate. Monmouth County has one of the highest disparities in the state of New Jersey with African-Americans being arrested for marijuana possession at a rate of 4.6 times the rate that whites are.
The fact sheet said that the Asbury Park Police Department made 1,991 arrests, 440 of those arrests were under the category of simple drug possession or possession of paraphernalia. This amounts to more than 22 percent (or close to one-quarter) of the police arrests for the year. Over 45 percent of the possession arrests in Asbury Park were for marijuana alone.
The endorsement of the Asbury Park Democrats is significant as “by law their group represents civic leaders from each voting district in the city, ensuring diverse representation” said Joe Grillo, chairman of the Asbury Park Democrats. Even more so, the Asbury Park Democratic Committee unanimously supported the endorsement.
The marijuana legalization initiative is part of the group’s ongoing local harm reduction platform, which includes activating a needle-exchange program and the already implemented narcan opioid overdose antidote program in Monmouth County. Help Not Handcuffs is a supporting member of New Jersey United for Marijuana.