TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey's attorney general has announced an immediate hold of all marijuana cases in municipal courts statewide until at least September.
The decision was included in a letter state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sent Tuesday to municipal prosecutors in the state. It asked them to seek an adjournment until Sept. 4 - or later - of any matter "involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court," a move that will allow the attorney general's office time to develop "appropriate guidance" for prosecutors.
Grewal is an appointee of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is pushing for legalized possession of recreational marijuana. Murphy has said he backs legalization as a "social justice" issue and rejects critics' claims that he's eager only for new revenue for the cash-strapped budget.
Murphy last month endorsed federal legislation that would stop the federal government from enforcing anti-marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug, and has been pushing for legalization to occur within New Jersey by year's end. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.
Grewal said he plans to convene a working group of criminal justice stakeholders to study the issue and advise him on possible solutions. He intends to issue a statewide directive by the end of next month concerning the scope and "appropriate use of prosecutorial discretion" in marijuana-related offenses in municipal court.
Grewal's letter did not say if arrests for marijuana possession would also be put on hold, and authorities declined comment on that issue Tuesday.
The letter was first reported by New Jersey Advance Media.
It came just days after Jake Hudnut, the newly installed municipal prosecutor in Jersey City, announced that his office would seek to downgrade some marijuana charges to noncriminal offenses, seek the outright dismissal of low-level marijuana charges and divert those defendants with prior drug arrests and signs of addiction to the city's community court.
The attorney general's office quickly notified Hudnut that he lacked the legal authority to decriminalize marijuana or otherwise refuse to criminally prosecute marijuana-related offenses, noting that only the state Legislature could take such action.
Advocates of marijuana legalization in the state say they're trying to overcome decades of stigma, as well as a federal prohibition, in an effort to make New Jersey the latest state to legalize cannabis. But they say they remain optimistic that bills will pass the Democrat-led Legislature this year. Opponents point to the legalization effort's slow pace as a sign it could stall out.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter, said Grewal's letter was a "step forward" that should bring the state closer to reforming its marijuana laws.
"We must pump the brakes on marijuana arrests and prosecutions, and engage in a serious critical examination of how we handle the tens of thousands of marijuana arrests we make each year."
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