IRVINGTON, NJ — The debate regarding marijuana legalization in the New Jersey Legislature has reminded former Irvington NAACP President Kathleen Witcher of Robert Peace, an Orange native who won a full scholarship to Yale University and graduated with a degree in molecular biology and chemistry, but ended up dying in a drug deal gone bad in Newark in 2011.
Two of the main issues of Sen. Nick Scutari’s combined marijuana legalization bill are how to address social justice issues, including how to rectify the effects of the war on drugs on black and mostly minority communities and whether to erase the criminal records of those who were convicted for selling or using marijuana or other cannabinoid products. There are also questions about how legalization would impact penal codes regarding cannabis production, distribution and use, which law enforcement utilizes, and how state legalization in could be impacted by federal laws that still have cannabis listed as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal to produce, distribute or consume.
But Witcher said the sad aspect of the ongoing debate is that it’s taking place years after Peace died trying to do something illegal that legislators are now considering legalizing. According to published reports and the book “The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace,” by Jeff Hobbs, Peace used his Ivy League education to grow and sell illegal marijuana instead of pursuing a legitimate career, and he paid for it with his life.
“I know Robert Peace’s story,” said Witcher on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Irvington NAACP’s monthly meeting. “If he was around now, he’d be trying to get legal. He was a scholarly person who wanted to make little bit of money and I’m afraid that his death has not meant a lot to our people because, if anything, many of our people on the street they have been arrested for possession and distribution and so on and so forth, but none of it is concerned about them getting employment on the legal side. So I think that, if time is spent and attention is given, there can be employment for people who would otherwise be what they call ‘illegally employed.’”
Witcher said Peace’s death highlights the social justice aspect of the ongoing marijuana legalization debate and the difficulties for legislators seeking to make an illegal drug legal.
“We’re never going to be equal. They’re not trying to be equal,” said Witcher. “I heard some people who lead big organizations at the state level who said: ‘Oh, it’s time for us to make some money.’ What happened to the little guy? What happened to the street level? Nothing is being said to help them.”