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Camden County girl takes marijuana to treat severe form of epilepsy.

CAMDEN – Three years after persuading Mayor Michael Nutter to decriminalize marijuana possession in Philadelphia, a small group of activists is leading an effort to do the same in Camden, with support from a city councilman.

Garden State Cannabis Consumers, a new grassroots organization, held a town hall meeting at the Camden County Library recently to gather comments from the public. About 20 people attended the meeting to learn details about the proposal.

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Chris Goldstein of Willingboro, a pro-marijuana activist and columnist for Philly.com, said no municipality in New Jersey has adopted an ordinance that treats marijuana possession as a civil offense, akin to a parking ticket. He said 68 municipalities nationwide have passed similar measures. He would like to see the concept spread throughout the state.

“We think Camden would be an excellent first penguin in this,” Goldstein said.

Decriminalization means “no arrest, no jail, no chance of … a bench warrant,” he added. “It is a civil, non-criminal violation.” 

A group of South Jersey activists wants Camden to duplicate Philadelphia’s decision to decriminalize marijuana. (Photo: Courier-Post file)

In New Jersey, the penalty for marijuana possession ranges between six to 18 months in jail and up to $25,000 in fines, according to NORML New Jersey. Additionally, unless a patient has a medical marijuana card, being under the influence of cannabis is a misdemeanor with penalties that include jail time for up to six months, fines, loss of public housing and driving privileges, community service, and up to five years of probation.

Ricardo Rivera, a Camden County father of a registered medical marijuana patient, has been advocating for easier, cheaper access to marijuana. His 10-year-old daughter, Tatyana “Tuffy” Rivera, is on a prescribed regimen of cannabis oil to control a severe form of epilepsy. 

The two activists have been working on the proposal since February with Camden City Councilman Angel Fuentes, a former state assemblyman. 

Fuentes told the Courier-Post he plans to introduce a resolution to create a committee to study the issue. Fuentes said he wants the committee to provide the “pros and cons” of decriminalization and to make recommendations to the city council. He noted the state Legislature and several municipalities are considering measures to legalize recreational marijuana. 

Fuentes said he wants law enforcement officers, doctors, a psychiatrist, counselors, the county prosecutor and local residents to serve on the committee.

Goldstein said efforts to enforce marijuana laws are costly and disproportionately affect young, black and Latino people. Figures provided by Camden County showed there were 241 arrests for marijuana possession in the city last year, compared with 322 arrests for opiates and cocaine, though the numbers were not broken down by race or age.  

Vanessa Maria, an activist and radio producer, said she served on the District Council Collaborative Board in Camden for three years. Residents complained about abandoned cars and homes, trash, gun violence, gang and drug activities, she said, but never raised concerns about marijuana use. 

“If (the police) are under-resourced and under-staffed, then why are they expending resources on marijuana arrests?” she asked. 

Jamhar James of Winslow told organizers that students’ federal grants are also jeopardized if college students are caught with marijuana. 

“It’s very scary for any student,” the 29-year-old said. 

Rocco Zara of Galloway, a registered medical marijuana patient, said he wants the state to allow patients to cultivate their own plants. Patients enrolled in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program have long complained about the high cost of cannabis sold through state-regulated dispensaries. 

The grassroots group is also pushing for laws to permit home cultivation and protect marijuana consumers.

Goldstein outlined numerous concerns about a state bill that would legalize marijuana for people over age 21, if purchased from a state-regulated vendor. He said the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), will hurt poor minority people, because it will penalize those who buy cheaper marijuana on the street or try to grow their own. 

“We have to solve this problem before we move ahead,” Goldstein said. “We can’t go into a green rush, full forward, to boost the bank accounts of the Colorado marijuana industry.” 

The decriminalization movement has won unlikely allies. The New Jersey Prevention Network and the New Jersey Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence both support decriminalizing marijuana over legalizing it.  

Wayne Wirta, the council’s president and CEO, said current laws keep people from getting into recovery and are not applied evenly.  

“We’re against that whole ‘drug war’ approach, because it punishes people for having an illness,” Wirta said.

Diane Litterer, executive director of the N.J. Prevention Network, said decriminalizing is a “much better option than legalizing.” But it’s a complex issue that requires careful consideration, she noted.

From a public health perspective, her organization is especially concerned that young people will get the message that marijuana, if legalized, is acceptable for them to use. Marijuana use among young people is associated with higher rates of addiction and lower academic performance, she noted. 

In Colorado, marijuana-associated traffic deaths increased 48 percent during a three-year period following legalization of recreational marijuana. Marijuana use there among youth rose 20 percent in the two-year average following legalization, according to a study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. 

“That’s why we’re not all about this. Kids need to have a clear no-use message. It’s very hard to find that balance,” Litterer said. 

Kim Mulford: (856) 486-2448; kmulford@gannettnj.com

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