SPARTA, NJ – Parents may be surprised by some of the new rules put in place by the marijuana laws signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Feb. 22, 2021.  The new law strips parents’ right to know if their child has been caught with pot or booze.

The new law allows for possession of up to six ounces of marijuana.  It vacates previous arrests. It also decriminalizes drug paraphernalia. And underage drinking.

“While it was not a surprise that the legislation was signed into law, what was a surprise were the changes to marijuana AND underage drinking laws for those under the age of 18,” Center for Prevention and Counseling Executive Director Becky Carlson said. “Many times when a young person is 'caught' using a substance, it is not their first time using, it’s just their first time getting caught by an adult. This chance encounter provides an opportunity for early intervention and often involves a caring adult probing to identify the root cause of use such as mental health issues, anxiety, addiction, family issues, etc. and then providing necessary support and community linkage as needed.” [emphasis included]

Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto said, “The final bill that was passed legalizing marijuana has really handcuffed police and will no doubt negatively affect community relations and the positive correspondence that police have worked so hard to establish with our youth.”

Another feature of the new law is the spotlight shone on penalties for police if civil rights are violated. Something police have “always known to be aware of,” according to Spidaletto.

“We are always held to that standard,” Spidaletto said. “How could anyone who is a police officer not feel that they are being negatively looked upon and greatly under appreciated by the legislatures and government officials that supported this?”

New Laws

Three new laws comprise the new rules about marijuana; Cannabis Legalization, Marijuana Decriminalization and “clarifying other provisions” that deal with “individuals under the age of 21,” according to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

  • It is not yet legal to purchase pot unless you have a medical marijuana card. Medical marijuana must be purchased from a licensed medical marijuana dispensary 
  • The “Cannabis Regulatory Committee" has to be established to promulgate regulations from the new laws. Until this committee issues rules, “as a practical matter, regulated cannabis will not be available in the state for several months,” according to Grewal.
  • When there are legal establishments to purchase marijuana for recreational use it will be called “cannabis.” Any unregulated form of cannabis or medical marijuana will be referred to as marijuana or hashish according to advisories from the state.
  • Users will have to make their purchases at approved retail sites.
  • Marijuana growers must be licensed.  Individuals cannot grow their own pot.
  • It is not legal to smoke cannabis in public or anywhere cigarette smoking is prohibited
  • Smelling raw or burnt marijuana is no longer probable cause for a vehicle stop or stopping a pedestrian, regardless of age. Officers must have other “reasonable suspicion” to stop and to search any driver or pedestrian.

“Parent education, point of sale strategies that reduce access and availability to marijuana, and clear, consistent, messaging regarding the health impacts of youth use of marijuana and alcohol will be essential in the months and years to come in an effort to mitigate the negative effects these changes will have,” Center for Prevention Director of Prevention Services Tina Aue said. 

New Rules for  People Under 21Years of Age

According to Grewal, “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.”

While the officer can seize the substances and “issue the appropriate warning,” they are:

  • Prohibited from requesting consent to search from anyone under 21
  • Not allowed to use the smell of burnt or raw marijuana as cause for stop or search
  • Not allowed to stop or search just because the marijuana is in plain site
  • Not allowed to stop or search just because the alcohol is in plain site
  • Not allowed to arrest, detain or otherwise take an individual under the age of 21 into custody for having marijuana or alcohol, except to issue a written warning or provide notice of violation to parent.

“I have not spoken to one single parent in Sparta that would NOT want to be notified if their child was in possession of a substance that can bring them harm,” Spidaletto said. “As a father, I am extremely bothered by this.  I can only hope that the legislature reconsiders portions of this bill quickly to prevent the negative consequences that will come from its current status.”

Video Required

Any officer with a body worn camera must have that camera activated when interacting with anyone regardless of their age when dealing with a cannabis or alcohol related incidents, according to Grewal.

Sparta has dashboard mounted cameras in all vehicles and BWCs for all officers but that is not true of all police departments.  The governor signed legislation and an executive order in the fall of 2020 requiring and funding BWCs for every police officer. The Interagency Working Group on BWCs was established for that purpose in November 2020. The state is requiring body cams for all police officers by June 1, 2021.

Editor's Note- Part 2 will be published Sunday, March 7

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