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Op-Ed: NJ must stop over-penalizing Black communities with antiquated drug laws

By REV. TIMOTHY L. ADKINS-JONES | NOVEMBER 3, 2023

The war on drugs decimated NJ’s communities of color. We know what needs to be done, but do we have the will to act?




We have lost almost 1,800 beautiful souls to preventable drug overdoses in New Jersey this year alone. Also, the state has the country’s most racially disproportionate incarcerated population, with Black residents incarcerated at rates 12 times higher than white residents and 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for drug-war violations than white residents despite white people using and selling drugs at higher rates.


As we work to address the health of communities most hurt by the evil drug war, we must remember what we learned during the pandemic: We are all, regardless of our neighborhood, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, race, religious background or even incarceration status, inextricably tied to one another. And the health and wellness of a few of us affect us all.


To me, as a faith leader, those lessons learned during the pandemic were about justice and public safety. We cannot keep communities safe by upending families and communities. Instead, we must ensure their safety by replacing our historical tendency to punish with compassion for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Only by letting this principle guide us will we give every member of our community the respect they deserve.

Learning from scriptures


That’s what the scriptures teach us: compassion and redemption. We can lean on these principles by making sure that we are not unnecessarily adding more harm to our communities and more people to our already overpopulated prisons. Now is the perfect time to work toward undoing this system.


Reforming this unjust, racist system is long overdue, and the health of our community mandates a change. New Jersey did this in 2020 when it legalized recreational use of cannabis, which also decriminalized certain cannabis- and hashish-related offenses.


While these were steps in the right direction, we must continue to strive toward greater equity by decriminalizing personal drug use and possession. We must also work diligently to implement comprehensive automatic clearance of all previous criminal record charges related to cannabis. No one should be in prison for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. The fines and jail time associated with these offenses have filled our jails and clogged our justice system. We must move toward decriminalization now and stop over-penalizing Black communities subjected to racist and antiquated so-called public safety measures.


Justice requires that we challenge our current responses to drug use in this state. The evidence continues to show that using the police and other punitive measures to address nonviolent, mental and behavioral health, and substance-use issues is both ineffective and inappropriate. We must begin to follow the examples set by other states and municipalities throughout the nation and invest in community-led alternatives to police responses for these sensitive and complex societal issues. Programs such as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) in Eugene, Oregon, and STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) in Denver have a demonstrable record of success in providing life-saving and life-affirming services to those who use drugs.

Programs that work


We have seen similar successes from community-led first-response teams here in our very own backyard with the Newark Community Street Team, Paterson Healing Collective and Trenton Restorative Street Team. There is an opportunity for us to build on the work that has already been done by increasing state investments in these programs as well as other harm reduction and violence interruption hubs, which are critical tools for limiting unnecessary and harmful interactions between the police and communities of color.


Simply put, the fewer people caught up in the machinations of simple use and possession charges, the fewer resources wasted to incarcerate, enforce and prosecute meaningless offenses. It would also mean more resources returned to our communities, which are desperately needed to ensure that everyone can live a happy and fulfilling life.


I’ve lost track of how long this “war on drugs” has been decimating our communities, but I am certain that the arc of the moral universe, as Dr. Martin Luther King poignantly crafted, must bend toward justice. The work of bending the arc in our criminal justice system takes the voice of the people and puts the proper policies in place. We must end this racist war on drugs and liberate our Black communities so that we all can see a more equitable moral universe, bending ever toward justice.




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