MILLBURN, N.J. – Less than 24 hours after the New York Red Bulls exercised his contract option for the 2019 MLS season, Anatole Abang was arrested in the early morning hours of Dec. 5 for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
The charges carry a mandatory court appearance, and a record on NJCourts.gov details that the 22-year-old forward is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 26.
According to a public report, Abang was one of two arrested and handed summonses after the car in which both were traveling was stopped on South Orange Avenue. A subsequent search uncovered a small quantity of marijuana and hashish - a cannabis plant extract - per the charges filed against Abang.
Legal experts consulted by OaM advised the case can be considered a disorderly persons offense - a misdemeanor which could be settled with a conditional discharge.
In New Jersey, charges such as this can be resolved by way of a Pretrial Intervention, which might stipulate the case be dismissed and sealed as long as the accused is not re-arrested within a certain time frame of the agreement.
Despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign pledge to legalize marijuana – along with his October claim that the Garden State would welcome legal marijuana “sooner rather than later” – New Jersey remains one of 23 states who have legalized medical but not recreational use of cannabis.
That said, marijuana possession was briefly decriminalized in New Jersey last summer. When the decriminalization period ended, the State Attorney General issued guidance encouraging prosecutors to use their discretion in possession cases, considering factors such as how a conviction might affect an accused individual’s employment, housing, or schooling.
Under current laws, New Jersey’s charge for marijuana possession has a threshold of 50 grams after which penalties heighten. Abang is charged with possession of less than 50 grams.
However, according to Luis A. Guerra, an immigration attorney who handles visa and green card applications for Major League Soccer players, the threshold that is significant to immigration matters is 30 grams. Individuals convicted of possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana may be able to obtain a waiver to prevent it influencing their visa application.
Abang, a native of Yaoundé, Cameroon, is listed as one of eight international players on the RBNY roster. Since players with green cards do not require an international roster spot under MLS rules, Abang is almost certainly playing under a work visa.
The main distinction between green card holders and those with a visa is that the former are permanent residents – but not citizens – and the latter are persons who have been granted the right for a temporary stay.
A crime like marijuana possession could present issues for Abang if his visa is set to expire anytime soon.
As Guerra referenced, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana allows for a waiver when applying for a visa. But it is unclear whether Abang is charged with possession of a quantity below the crucial 30-gram threshold – the statute under which he is charged is for possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana and 5 grams of hashish. More will be known after his late February appearance in court or pretrial resolution.
Abang’s arrest may ultimately be regarded as a minor misdemeanor with no devastating ramifications, but it is an unfortunate development in the context of his bizarre tenure with the Red Bulls, in which Abang was virtually exiled from the club for a two-year period.
After a promising first season with the Red Bulls in 2015, the 6-foot-1 forward was loaned out in August 2016 to Hobro IK in Denmark – a season-long loan that was cut short in January 2017.
Despite lack of any evidence of his being attached to a team, Abang remained listed as “on loan” by MLS and RBNY from late January to early April. On April 4, 2017, New York “officially terminated Abang’s loan with Hobro IK,” and the forward “signed a new loan agreement” with SJK Seinajoki in Finland, per the Red Bulls press release. One month later, SJK prematurely ended Abang’s stay.
After another purgatory-esque two-month waiting period, Abang joined Astra Giurgiu in Romania during July 2017. He appeared in 26 league matches and scored five goals, but his time in Romania ended amid a flurry of rumors including suggestion Astra had made his loan permanent, reported interest from heavyweight club Steaua Bucharest, and the accusation that he had stolen money and credit cards from his teammates.
The surprising resolution to Abang’s latest difficulty since being exiled by RBNY almost two years earlier was the player’s return to the Red Bulls in August 2018. He made no appearances for the club in MLS over the back-end of the 2018 season, but did score three times in nine outings for the II team in USL.
Five days after the Red Bulls were eliminated from contention for MLS Cup in the Eastern Conference Final, Abang was one of 11 players who had a contract option exercised by the club. Hours after it was announced he’d be back with RBNY for 2019, he was pulled over on South Orange Avenue.
As noted by the Millburn Police Department’s published report on the arrest, all defendants are presumed innocent unless and until they enter a guilty plea or are found guilty in a court of law.
The Red Bulls issued the following statement on the matter:
We are aware of the incident and will remain in contact with Anatole, the League Office, and local authorities throughout the investigative process. There will be no further comment at this time.