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Is Newark's New Mayor Going to Decriminalize All Drugs?

Tuesday's vote produced a mayor-elect who has embraced the idea of blanket decriminalization, but will he carry that wish to fruition in a city tormented by violent crime?

Michael Tracey

Municipal Councilman Ras Baraka campaigning in Newark ahead of the mayoral election, which he won. Photo courtesy the author

All else paled in comparison to questions of criminal-justice policy as the Newark, New Jersey, mayoral race reached its bitter conclusion Tuesday. Looming over every press conference stunt, dubiously sourced accusation, and miscellaneous hardball maneuver was a murder rate that today stands as the city’s highest in 24 years. This while only a harbor away in New York, historically low violent crime rates continue to plummet; indeed, almost every other metropolitan area in the US has seen precipitous declines in these deaths. But not Newark. Whenever society-wide advancements are said to have been made, history shows that the benefits seldom flow equitably to Newark.

Whereas in 2013, the average American enjoyed yet another consecutive year of greater domestic tranquility, Newark was wracked by escalating chaos. “War zone” became a descriptive term of choice. Celebrity Mayor Cory Booker had by this time essentially abandoned governing the place, opting instead to continue his nationwide motivational-speaking tour and prepare for an ultimately successful US Senate campaign. Left behind upon his departure were the eternal woes of municipal dysfunction, a problem to be inherited by some luckless successor.

Mayor-Elect Ras Baraka claims to have looked out upon the beleaguered city and, after careful consideration, devised an ingenious remedy for its many ills.

“I think drugs should be decriminalized, period,” he told me.

Yes, that would include crack, methamphetamine, and heroin. Perhaps not a policy position one would expect to hear promulgated in the context of a ferociously contested election marked by persistent fear of drug-related violence, but maybe there is something brewing in Newark.

Baraka’s vanquished opponent, Shavar Jeffries, touted his background in law enforcement as the central rationale for his candidacy. Courting voters in the South Ward at the city’s annual outdoor “Bikefest” celebration the weekend before the election, Jeffries, a former prosecutor, was often asked to simply introduce himself, as few people seemed to recognize the man. His cold pitch would typically begin with the talking point that he was uniquely qualified to quell the violence, and the charge that Baraka had presided over a 70 percent increase in the murder rate as councilman for the South Ward.

Jeffries dismissed the notion of drug decriminalization as a realistic approach for ameliorating misery in Newark. “If it’s decriminalized, then you’re doing your thing,” he told me. “Nobody’s touching you. Do whatever you want, be addicted. Destroy your families. Be addicted and then maybe commit an act of violence to feed your addiction.”

“What I support is drug court,” Jeffries added, in reference to the state program the candidate often told listeners he had helped expand as state assistant attorney general under former Governor Jon Corzine. Indeed, both mayoral contenders joined with Corzine’s successor, Chris Christie, in heralding the alleged successes of state drug courts. “All progressive people in this area are supporting drug court,” Baraka said, suggesting the program represents a great leap forward in finally treating nonviolent drug crime, as the oft-heard axiom goes, not as a criminal-justice issue but as a public health problem. “It makes no sense to lock up a drug user at all," Jeffries said.

In 2012, Christie signed into law a bill that made New Jersey the first state to institute compulsory drug court for some offenders, which both candidates have indicated they support. Jeffries acknowledged that an offender admitted to drug court who violates the terms of his enrollment—by relapsing on the drug he is addicted to, for example—can be subject to carceral punishment. Thus, drug courts in New Jersey fall squarely within the auspices of the criminal-justice system, as has been ruled by the State Supreme Court, which defined the program as "a creature of the judiciary."

Plainly, then, the drug-court regime is no genuine alternative to the criminal-justice system—it is rather an expansion of that system into additional realms. Poor or nonexistent record-keeping practices by law enforcement agencies stifles independent inquiries into the government’s claims of positive results. A truly genuine reform proposal would stem the flow of individuals into the criminal justice system in the first place. One means of doing this would be to remove criminal penalties for possession of illicit substances. To that end, before the New Jersey State Senate is a bill that would make possessing marijuana legal for adults aged 21 and over.

Jeffries denied that such a reform would have any practical value for Newark, a tactical choice that might have contributed to his downfall. “You might as well ask me about—let’s send somebody to Mars. It’s just not relevant to what’s going on,” he said. “Marijuana charges—that’s just not happening in the city.” Twenty-one-year-old Naimah Muhammad might have a different perspective on the subject, given his February arrest by Newark police on charges of simple marijuana possession.

Puzzlingly, despite endorsing the concept of drug decriminalization, the victorious Baraka also hedged on the question of marijuana legalization per se. When asked for his view on the senate bill, he equivocated, remarking obtusely, “If the people decide they want to go further, that’s when they go further.” It is a telling sign of the times in Newark that the winning candidate, portrayed as a “radical” by opponents who enjoyed funding from the charter school crowd and associated hedge fund and private equity titans for his readiness to negotiate with gang leaders, would apparently be unwilling to voice a clear position on marijuana legalization while he claims to support systemic change to the entire drug-prohibition regime. Even his opponent, Jeffries, eventually conceded that he would “probably support” a statewide marijuana-legalization initiative. And Baraka’s actual willingness to exert mayoral power on behalf of drug-policy reform remains unclear—he will command considerable control over police procedures but limited political capital.

Paradoxes and contradictions. But so it goes in Newark. About this there is little doubt: The city’s young men deserve to not fear arrest for nonviolent drug crimes, which inflicts trauma and indignity on the individual, his family, his peer group, and dramatically destabilizes his ordinary life. Such law enforcement actions do not promote public safety but hinder it. The new mayor of Newark would do well to recognize this.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.