Now that state lawmakers have passed measures to create a marketplace for recreational marijuana in New Jersey – as well as basically eliminated sanctions for underage possession and use of marijuana and alcohol – the big challenge for local police departments is how to enforce these new regulations and to educate people about the seismic shift in thinking.
Police are bracing for Memorial Day and beyond, when the odor of marijuana may become common in public places, like beaches, boardwalks, and parks. Many people will probably turn to police and expect the usual uniform enforcement.
It’s now crucial that the public understand what their police officers can and cannot do under the new law.
There has been plenty of discussion among members of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police (NJSACOP), as the public is confronted with more marijuana and alcohol possession by people of all ages, including teens.
Officers’ hands will be tied under the new law. Here is why:
If a person under the age of 21 refuses to turn over marijuana or alcohol, or won’t provide identification upon request, police can no longer make an arrest nor conduct any search beyond what is in plain sight. That means the contraband cannot be confiscated and officers cannot provide a warning to parents of teens and children under the age of 18. Why? Officers won’t know the identity of these kids.
If police smell marijuana on a teen, officers are no longer allowed to search this juvenile or search a vehicle for any contraband not in plain sight. Officers, under the new law, must let the youth go.
Police can no longer arrest or detain an under-aged person caught with pot or alcohol other than issue a written warning or notify his or her parents. It does not matter if this is the teenager’s first, second, third, or even 10th violation of the law. Equally puzzling is the lack of a centralized and uniform database to record all warning notices that police officers issue in New Jersey.
State lawmakers have essentially decriminalized marijuana and alcohol possession for children.
Yet, they criminalized the good-faith actions of police who may make honest mistakes by trying to investigate and comply with the new law. If a police officer runs afoul of any regulations listed in nearly 300 pages of new legislation, that officer can be subject to a third-degree criminal charge.
NJSACOP, as well as other state law-enforcement agencies, is now taking a crash course in this new law. We all want to ensure police officers are fully aware of what they are no longer allowed to do when interacting with under-aged people.
Officers’ careers – in all seriousness – could depend on it.
With this perspective, the public also needs to be aware. If, for example, you are sitting on the beach with your family this summer, and nearby teens have marijuana and beer, police officers will be extremely limited in their response.
The officers will empathize with this obvious nuisance, but the law is the law.
Police departments around the state are reminded by the attorney general’s office's updated written policy: “Law enforcement officers must be cautious when they encounter an individual under the age of 21 who is in possession of marijuana, hashish, cannabis, or alcohol.”
NJSACOP respectfully requests that our state lawmakers consider sensible revisions to these new laws for the welfare of those under age 21 and to safeguard police officers, who must now navigate very stringent procedures.
For the moment, the paramount objective is to prepare officers for these new changes and to provide plenty of education for all New Jerseyans, many of whom don’t know of the “new normal” that’s coming to a beach blanket near them.
While New Jersey voters approved the ballot question for a legalized marketplace for marijuana, we can only assume far fewer would have voted “yes” if they realized our state lawmakers would pass subsequent legislation that would, in effect, give teens a green light to possess and use marijuana and alcohol, but that is now the case, and we all need to prepare for it.
ED. NOTE: The author is first vice president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.