Like a growing number of states, New Jersey recently decriminalized marijuana — but law enforcement and parents are sounding the alarm about portions of the legislation that remove penalties for underage drug and alcohol use.
Signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy on February 22, the new measures legalize adult use of marijuana, allowing people to purchase up to an ounce at a time and possess up to six ounces. The state will create a regulated cannabis marketplace and stop low-level distribution and possession offenses from being used in pretrial release, probation and parole decisions. But the law is also distressingly lax about marijuana use by minors — and, by extension, weakens consequences for teen drinking as well.
A new three-step process limits how law enforcement officers respond to cases of kids under 18 caught smoking or drinking. For the first offense, police can only issue the minor a written warning; they are prohibited from notifying parents or guardians until the second offense. On the third office, the minor would be referred to a community service group offering substance abuse education.
State Senator Michael Testa called the bill “insane,” arguing, “The government is taking parents out of the lives of their children.”
Law enforcement leaders agree. “To apply these new laws to a ‘real-life’ situation, if an officer observes a 12-year-old — or a juvenile of any age — consuming alcohol and/or smoking marijuana in violation of the law, that officer CANNOT contact the juvenile’s parent or guardian — unless this behavior has been previously documented,” Westfield Police Chief Christopher Battiloro wrote in a statement on Facebook, adding that the law angers him both as a law enforcement officer and as the father of three teenagers and preteens.
“We see these laws as not only counterproductive but also as a detriment to the safety of our children,” Point Pleasant Police Chief Joseph Michigan said in his own statement. “Reviewing the new policy, what presents itself as most problematic is the inability to freely communicate with parents.”
Many members of law enforcement, including the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, supported decriminalization due to the disproportionate effect that the war on drugs has had on Black communities. But they say the law regarding minors not only endangers kids, families and public safety, but also brings new legal risks for officers. “Under this new law, a law enforcement officer is subject to criminal prosecution if he or she even asks a minor or young adult under the age of 21 to consent to a search or otherwise conducts such a search despite reasonable suspicious activity, such as the odor of alcohol or marijuana,” the association stated. “An honest mistake in ascertaining someone’s age, intentions or degree of impairment subjects the officer to prosecution for a crime.”
Barnegat Township Police Chief Keith Germain told KYW News Radio that while New Jersey voters in the November 2020 election overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana use for adults, they did not vote to do the same for minors, and he has no idea what legislators were thinking by passing a bill that forces police to keep secrets from parents. “The big problem we have here is that you have legislation which effectively decriminalized alcohol and marijuana or cannabis for kids. I mean, that’s what this is. There’s no other way to look at it,” he said, predicting that the change will have dire repercussions: “It’s going to allow for more use and abuse. I think it would defy logic to think otherwise.”