New Jersey’s Marijuana Laws and Your Kids

March 4, 2021

On February 22, marijuana officially became a legal substance in New Jersey, when Governor Phil Murphy signed three pieces of legislation to permit cannabis use and possession for adults in the state. The laws came over three months after New Jersey residents voted to legalize adult use of the drug. The governor had promised to keep it out of underage hands. What is in the bills?

The three laws signed by the governor establish regulatory rules, decriminalize the drug, and deal with other issues, such as underage use. The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement, Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act (A21) legalizes regulatory cannabis; the marijuana decriminalization law (A1897) decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana and hashish and establishes new, more lenient penalties for the distribution of these substances; and the Other Clarifying Provisions Law (S3454) lays out a miscellany of rules, including marijuana and cannabis use and possession penalties for individuals younger than 21 years old.

One of the main sticking-points in the three-month long negotiations leading to the passing of the bills was penalties for underage use. The issue is complex because lawmakers have conflicting goals on the subject. As Governor Murphy reiterated in his statement at the time of the bill-signing, legalization for him is about social justice, and perhaps the whole point is to keep young minorities out of entanglement with the law. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey each year for low-level drug offenses is unjust and indefensible,” Murphy said. “Today, we’re taking a monumental step forward to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

But Murphy had also promised to keep tough measures in place to protect youth from falling into the cycle of substance use and abuse through legal marijuana. In his recent interview with the Voice of Lakewood, Murphy reflected on the urgency Lakewood parents feel to protect their children, and claimed it resonated with his own concern for his four children. “I would far rather regulate it, so we can limit its use,” Murphy had told the Voice. “It will be limited to people over age twenty-one. Not everyone will get this, it is adult-use cannabis, you have to be over age twenty-one to get it, and we will regulate and enforce that aggressively.” When pressed on the difficulty policing youth use, Murphy insisted, “I do not accept that we can’t enforce the twenty-one-and-up reality.”

How does the law passed last week balance the need to enforce age-limits while keeping young people out of trouble? The law contains the following provisions:

Although it is illegal for a person under age 21 to possess or use marijuana, a police officer who smells its odor on a juvenile is forbidden to search his person or vehicle for the substance. The smell of burning marijuana does not constitute probable cause for a stop and search.

A police officer who sees a juvenile openly using marijuana or drinking alcohol is likewise forbidden to stop or search his person or vehicle for the substance. The officer may not request consent to search, and even if given, such consent is invalid. Police may not ask any user for his age or ID.  Any officer stopping or searching a juvenile under such circumstances is liable to criminal prosecution on civil rights violations and may face three to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $15,000.

In the event that a police officer has cause to stop and search a juvenile for other reasons, and does discover illegal marijuana, he may not arrest the juvenile or notify his parents. The officer is to issue a written warning, which is to be kept on file only for the purposes of noting that a subsequent offense would be a second warning. The drug may be confiscated, but parents or guardians may not be notified. A repeat incident triggers a second warning, which will also include distribution of help-available materials to the juvenile, and a parental notification. A third offense will incur a third written warning, this time with a referral to a community help center. Help centers may be notified and may reach out to the juvenile. Under some unclear circumstances, there may be a fine imposed of up to $50.

Police may test the driver of a car from which the smell of marijuana emanates, and may confiscate the drug or alcohol. The vehicle may not be searched.  No permanent records of warnings or write-ups may be kept on file once the offender reaches age 21. If someone called 911 to report the underage use or the substance, all penalties are waived. The rest of the section of the law is devoted to penalties police officers can be liable to suffer, should they violate these restrictions.

One police department stated, “This policy goes against every step we have taken as a department, a school district, and a community to work collaboratively to protect our children. We are shocked and appalled as a police department, but also as parents. Who will ensure the welfare of our kids if the police can neither act nor contact a parent or legal guardian?

The Voice has reached out to Governor Murphy’s office for comment, but the Governor’s press squad declined to comment, referring all requests to the attorney general’s office.

Johnson and Johnson Vaccine Headed to New Jersey Teachers

New Jersey is expected to receive over 70,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine this week, following emergency use authorization granted for the vaccine by the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on February 27, and unanimous recommendation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week.

The vaccine, the third to be approved for use in the USA, has been in use for months in Europe. It can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures and does not require the super cold -94degrees Fahrenheit needed by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It is effective after only one shot, a feature officials are calling a “vaccination game-changer.”

The vaccine is not as effective as the two others in preventing the virus altogether, but just as effective in preventing serious illness, or death. The vaccine was shown to be 100 percent effective in preventing hospitalization and deaths during clinical trials. Overall it was 72 percent effective in a US trial across all ethnic, racial and age groups.

Rollout of the vaccine may take some time, but the New Jersey-based company says it will deliver enough single-doses by the end of March to vaccinate 20 million Americans, with an additional 100 million by the end of June. First distributions began Sunday night, immediately following CDC authorization, but the J&J inventory on Sunday was limited to four million. “Starting tonight, 3.9 million doses of J&J will be distributed across all channels, states, tribes, territories and pharmacies and community health centers,” a J&J official said. “Those J&J doses will be delivered as early as this Tuesday morning.” The official said, however, that the company has told the White House, “that the weekly supply will be limited for the next couple of weeks after the initial distribution.”

New Jersey is expecting to receive 73,600 of those initial doses, but where those doses will go is still being determined, Gov. Phil Murphy said. “Having a third tool in our toolbox is critical,” Murphy said. “An additional 70,000 doses in one week means another 70,000 vaccinated New Jerseyans.”

As of Friday, 1.9 million doses have been administered in New Jersey. Just under 637,000 New Jerseyans have been fully vaccinated with two doses. New Jersey has been receiving about 200,000 to 300,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna each week.

Murphy wants the additional vaccines to go to minorities, but several state lawmakers are pushing to give them to teachers. The governor announced Friday that additional vaccine sites would open in minority communities, which have not been getting vaccinated at the same rate as Caucasians. In conjunction with the Biden administration, New Jersey will open five community-based sites in Camden, Jersey City, Orange, Newark and Pleasantville, in addition to similar sites in Somerset, Trenton, Elizabeth, Paterson and Vineland. These sites are closed to the general public, with appointments handled by partnering houses of worship, community organizations and local community leaders. Murphy told the media on Sunday that the overwhelming number of the Johnson & Johnson doses that are expected to be available in New Jersey will be distributed to the state’s Black and Brown communities.

Senator Joseph Lagana, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain and Assemblyman Chris Tully (all Democrats from Bergen and Passaic) reacted to the approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine with the following joint statement: “In light of yesterday’s announcement that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been given emergency use authorization, we are renewing our call for educators to join the other essential workers already given priority access to vaccines. We all want our children to get a well-rounded education, learning from their teachers and in their classrooms. Reopening our schools is safer as more educators have the opportunity to be vaccinated, and it is our hope that reports of additional doses becoming available brings us closer to this vital step.”

On Monday, Murphy indicated that he had heard the call, and would begin classifying teachers as essential workers. The teachers should become eligible on March 15—a week after all the J&J doses received by the state are expected to be used. New doses will take weeks longer to produce. Itinerant farm workers and the homeless are to become eligible along with teachers. The move comes too late for eight Lakewood School District staff who tested positive for COVID-19 this week, including two who are hospitalized. District lawyer Michael Inzelbuch said the group, who all work at the Ella G. Clarke School, did not contract the virus at school, but at a joint dining excursion.

Public health officials are also warning that COVID-19 metrics, which have been dropping across the country for some time, appear to be bottoming out, and that another rise is in the offing. As restrictions ease, there is bound to be another resurgence of the virus, Fauci said, sparking a fourth wave. “Just look historically at the… early spring of 2020 or the summer of 2020, when we started to pull back prematurely. We saw the rebound,” said Fauci. This time around, there are also the increased spread of troubling variant strains to worry about, including some that appear to be homegrown- such as a new strain dubbed the “New York City” variant. Additionally, the dropping numbers plateaued much higher than they did at the bottom of the last valley, meaning the spread will rebound much faster. The country reached a low point of 70,000 new infections per day last week.

Health experts continue to stress that Americans who want to get life back to normal must keep physical distancing, and get vaccinated as soon as they are able.