Head of New Jersey’s NAACP calls for marijuana to be legalized

The head of the NAACP in New Jersey says it’s time to legalize marijuana. Richard Smith, president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP says laws against marijuana disproportionately hurt African Americans.
 
It’s something Smith, a resident of Vineland, N.J., has seen firsthand through his job as a prison guard. He sees no contradiction in what he does for a living, and legalizing marijuana. “From a moral standpoint and from a civil rights standpoint, we had no choice but to be involved when we see the devastating impact it’s having on our community,” Smith said.
 
Smith’s is doing more than hoping for change but is working towards that goal as a member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform’s steering committee. A group that also includes
Jon-Henry Barr, president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutor’s Association; and William J. Caruso, former executive director of the NJ Assembly Majority Office.
 
Smith acknowledges that from a political perspective, it’s not the easiest fight.
This week, Gov. Chris Christie strongly reiterated his opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana, describing any tax revenue generated from it as “blood money.”
 
But Smith sees signs of hope, too. Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, has introduced legislation that would legalize it for recreational use. Philadelphia decriminalized the possession of small amounts for personal use last year. And the states of Colorado and Washington both legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012.
 
“I think this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint,” Smith said.
 
Why it matters to the NAACP
 
Although a number of studies indicate that marijuana use among African Americans and whites are roughly the same, Smith says, blacks are three times more likely to be incarcerated for it.  Plenty of times as a prison guard, Smith says, he’s seen young people that he thought should really be there. 
 
Too often, Smith said, that initial incarceration has the effect of permanently relegating the young people to an underclass made up disproportionately of African Americans and Latinos.
“In the prison system, I don’t believe there’s much rehabilitation being done,” Smith said.
 
In African American and Latino neighborhoods, the problems don’t go away for the young people once they’re released. They’ll have trouble getting jobs. Buying homes. Getting financial aid for education.
 
And a job in law enforcement, like his? Off the table.
 
That last factor plays out on a larger scale in African American and Latino neighborhoods than most people realize, he said.
 
Going to jail creates an entire class of politically disenfranchised peope. Smith says because inmates can’t vote, it means one in four African American men are barred from voting.
 
“You might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” he said.
 
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This post is part of our South Jersey Politics Blog

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