Sen. Rice: Legalizing pot won’t stop social injustice in the black and brown community

Updated Oct 22, 2019

By Ronald L. Rice

Understanding how marijuana legalization will impact the health, education, economic, business, liability and litigation complexities of our densely-populated, metropolitan-bookended state, I fully oppose it, state Senator Ronald Rice says. Above, Rice addresses the Senate.


In the 400 years since the first slave boat unloaded human cargo in Virginia, African people and their descendants have helped build America from a ragtag collection of fledgling colonies to a powerful nation envied worldwide for its defense of liberty and justice.

Along the way, the sweat and blood of African Americans have yielded slow, incremental concessions toward the “restoration” of their rights and dignity as human beings. With every inch forward, they have cemented the foundation of liberty for all Americans, regardless of race, sex, gender, gender identity, age, ability and economic or other status. Step by step, black Americans and people of color are sculpting our nation into the true democracy referenced by our founders – outlawing racism and all the other “isms” that have stained our history.

On paper, it looks good. But we don’t live our lives on paper. I live mine as a black man on the streets of Newark – the city I’ve called home since 1955. I live it in the State House in Trenton where, for the last 33 years, I’ve represented Newark, Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington and Nutley as a state senator for the 28th Legislative District.

The person I am encompasses many influences and experiences, and includes the reality of being the descendant of slaves. I lived the first full eight years of my life in segregated Virginia before the Brown v. Board of Ed decision integrated schools and kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. I have a keen awareness of inequality and unjust practices. It’s baked into my personal history. It’s in my DNA.

As such, I have an innate ability to sense when people are saying one thing but intent on doing the opposite. I become wary when things take too long. And I become especially vigilant when state leaders want to define social justice for the very people who came into this world burdened with the yoke of inequity from birth. People of color, women and other marginal groups don’t need other people’s definition of social justice.

New Jersey hasn’t escaped the racial oppression percolating in practically every facet of American life. Our black and brown residents are put at a disadvantage through inadequate public school funding, housing and job opportunities. Privatized prisons enable slave labor to benefit corporate profits. Inequity in health care results in higher rates of disease and lower life expectancy. Environmental injustice puts poisons and toxins in our neighborhoods, often left to rot unless they are “discovered” for gentrification.

But to me, the most debilitating, depressing and detrimental offense to people of color is the unfair bias of our racist criminal justice system. And nowhere is that more evident than the instances of black and brown people arrested, convicted and incarcerated at a rate three times more than whites for the same small-quantity marijuana infractions. That ratio holds up even in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

Seeing firsthand how drugs eviscerate urban communities – and understanding how marijuana legalization will impact the health, education, economic, business, liability and litigation complexities of our densely-populated, metropolitan-bookended state – I fully oppose it. To correct the social injustice of unfair arrests, I support decriminalizing the use and possession of small amounts. It is a common sense compromise where New Jersey can find common ground.

Nonetheless, as our entire nation reels with panic over the dangerously high potency of today’s marijuana and the spiraling number of deaths from vaping, our state leaders stubbornly insist on pursuing legalization. It’s equally incomprehensible that while America convulses with an out-of-control opioid epidemic, New Jersey would signal to our children that marijuana should be promoted.

When I hear my colleagues pushing for legalization “in the name of social justice,” I can’t apologize for my instinct to suspect that it’s really about helping political friends profit from an industry that should not be allowed a foothold in our state.

I call on every black legislative, municipal, civil rights and faith leader in New Jersey to speak out against legalization. I want to remind them that our march for equality has already trudged across 400 long years and that no other ethnic group has had to struggle so hard to move the needle so little. I challenge each of them to step up and define “social justice” with their own voice, their own action and their own leadership rather than accept a diluted definition from those whose ancestors did not arrive as slaves.

I want them to uphold the dignity and wellbeing of every New Jerseyan and to remember the insight of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.


State Senator Ronald L. Rice has represented the 28th Legislative District in the New Jersey State Senate since 1986.

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