TRENTON, N.J. (June 19, 2020) – Yesterday, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana despite federal prohibition.

A coalition of 12 Democrats introduced Assembly Bill 1897 (A1897) in January. As passed by the Assembly, the legislation would decriminalize possession and distribution of up to 2 ounces of marijuana, making it a civil infraction similar to a traffic ticket. Instead of criminal charges, the offense would carry a punishment of a $50 fine.

The Assembly passed A1897 by a 63-10 vote.

Under current law, marijuana possession offenders can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. According to NORML, New Jersey police annually make over 30,000 marijuana-related arrests, among the highest of any state in the nation.

Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen said the measure would take a solid step forward.

“No New Jerseyan should have to live in fear of an arrest record and the collateral consequences that are associated with it. New Jersey has a unique opportunity to become a leader in marijuana policy reform in the U.S. As we commemorate Juneteenth this week, Garden State NORML looks forward to working to move the envelope forward by advocating for decriminalizing low-level marijuana arrests immediately, while also investing in the communities most harmed by cannabis criminalization.”

While the enactment of A1897 would not end marijuana prohibition in New Jersey, it would drastically reduce prosecution and disincentivize enforcement efforts.


Under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed in 1970, the federal government maintains complete prohibition of marijuana. Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate cannabis within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.

Despite federal prohibition, New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in 2010 and expanded the program last year. Decriminalization of marijuana would remove yet another layer of laws punishing the possession and use of marijuana in the state, but federal prohibition would remain in effect. This is significant because FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states stop enforcing marijuana laws, they sweep away most of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.

Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.


New Jersey joins a growing number of states increasingly ignoring federal prohibition, and nullifying it in practice.

Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, and California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization passed in November 2016. Michigan followed suit when voters legalized cannabis for general use in 2018. Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through a legislative act in 2018. Illinois followed suit in 2019.

With 33 states including allowing cannabis for medical use, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition anymore.

The lesson here is pretty straightforward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats.

The push to decriminalize marijuana in New Jersey underscores another important strategic reality. Once a state legalizes marijuana – even if only in a very limited way – it tends to eventually expand. As the state tears down some barriers, markets develop and demand expands. That creates pressure to further relax state law. These new laws represent a further erosion of unconstitutional federal marijuana prohibition.

Mike Maharrey