By DON STINE
Asbury Park may be well on its way to becoming the first municipality in New Jersey to legalize marijuana since City Council members said this week they have no problem becoming the first community to do so.
“It’s a symbolic gesture,” Mayor John Moor said at Monday’s council workshop.“It’s going to anger some people but, then, we come to history and reality. Sometimes you have to be the first,” he said.
The Help Not Handcuffs campaign is calling on the mayor and 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 make marijuana possession a lower law enforcement priority until legalization is implemented.
The effort is being supported by the Asbury Park Democrats.
“It’s a significant issue,” said Randy Thompson, an organizer of the legalization campaign.
Thompson said that Asbury Park should be “a leader in the state” on this issue, saying that legalized marijuana is rapidly being accepted in other states.
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.
He said cities like Asbury Park have a “more vulnerable population” for marijuana use and that the campaign also seeks to have local police make marijuana possession a lower priority.
“Obviously we can’t break the law and we can’t tell police to step down and not do their jobs,” Moor said.
But, overall, Moor said he supports legalization.
“Tax it, make some money, and get out of debt. I have no problem about it. New Jersey has to get into the 21st century and how police enforce it is up to them,” he said.
Other council members also voted in favor of drafting a resolution, which City Attorney Frederick Raffetto will be “drawn up carefully” and introduced at an upcoming meeting.
This is not the first time Asbury Park has stepped up on controversial issues. The city was in the forefront of the gay marriage movement when New Jersey’s first gay marriage license was issued and a wedding ceremony performed at City Hall in March, 2004. Hours later the state Attorney General’s Office said it would invalidate the marriage and the license.
But, eventually, the state legislature followed a path forged by Asbury Park and same-sex marriage has been legally recognized in New Jersey since October 21, 2013.
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.