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June 09, 2023

Rowdy teens at Jersey Shore reveal controversial aspect of state's marijuana decriminalization law

New Jersey's legalization legislation was written so that underage cannabis use would be addressed as a public health issue rather than a criminal one

Marijuana Ocean City
Ocean City Boardwalk Jon Tuleya/PhillyVoice

Many Ocean City beach and boardwalk visitors are worried about groups of kids partaking in underage drinking and drug use.

After rowdy crowds of teenagers overran Ocean City on Memorial Day weekend, the seaside city’s longtime mayor laid the blame squarely on state lawmakers.

As the state has trended toward leniency for juvenile scofflaws in recent years, Mayor Jay Gillian said the beach and boardwalk have been increasingly besieged by youthful mobs flaunting their underage drinking and drug use.

In an announcement of new curfews and a backpack ban for the Cape May County town, Gillian groused to Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers that “the laws they forced on all municipalities are a threat to public safety, and they deprive families of the opportunity to enjoy the Jersey Shore.”

Ocean City is the most recent place where police and municipal officials have struggled to balance state-mandated juvenile justice changes with damage control stemming from carousing kids.

“It’s a developing and evolving issue — we’re definitely hearing about this more with the warmer weather and young people going to these pop-up parties,” said Mike Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “There has to be an honest assessment of whether there have been some unintended consequences from the laws and how do we address that without undermining the intent.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy said he understands that large-scale youth gatherings have raised public safety concerns in recent years.

“In order to ensure that the safe enjoyment of the Jersey Shore is available to every family and resident, this administration will continue to work with the local elected officials and law enforcement officials of our shore towns to address this issue fairly and responsibly,” spokeswoman Tyler Jones said.

State officials also continue to invest in efforts to deter underage cannabis and alcohol use, Jones added.

Still, she stressed, the law has not changed on the legal age — 21 — for alcohol and recreational marijuana use.

While the state has moved away from criminally charging youth for underage alcohol and cannabis use, police can charge the adults and businesses who illegally supply those substances, as well as anyone who breaks state law or municipal ordinances on things like public intoxication, smoking where prohibited, and disorderly conduct.

Still, in Ocean City, where police say they responded to almost 1,000 incidents of misbehavior often involving young people over Memorial Day weekend, Gillian said state officials have stripped police of the power to question and search juveniles and confiscate alcohol and eliminated “meaningful consequences” for underage offenders.

That’s a complaint Cerra said he has heard around the state.

“In Ocean City or other shore destinations, it’s going to get the most attention,” Cerra said. “But this is statewide. I wouldn’t say every town has confronted it yet. But it’s broader than you might think.”

What does the law say?

In 2020, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive intended to divert youth away from the criminal justice system through strategies like “curbside warnings” or a police station visit, neither of which result in criminal charges.

The following year, legislators decriminalized marijuana use and set limits on how police should handle underage alcohol and marijuana possession. In guidance Attorney General Matt Platkin sent to local police departments afterward, he advised caution in encounters with underage offenders, warning that the cannabis law prohibits them from:

• Requesting consent from someone under 21.
• Using the odor of marijuana alone as a reason to stop someone under 21 or probable cause to search their personal property or vehicle.
• Arresting or detaining someone under 21 or transporting them to a police station, except as needed to issue a written warning or collect information to notify a parent or guardian.
• Placing someone under 21 in custody for refusing to identify themselves or surrender their stash (an officer can seize marijuana that’s in plain sight but can’t take custody of a juvenile who refuses to turn it over or otherwise conceals it).

Ami Kachalia is a campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, a group whose advocates helped craft those protections. Kachalia said supporters of legalization wanted to make sure the state addressed youth use of cannabis “as more of a public health issue.”

“As we were all working on legalization, we knew that that was something we had to be mindful of — that as we are removing criminal penalties for adults and legalizing this for adults, we’re not having a collateral consequence of heightening the harm that young people face,” Kachalia said.

law passed in 2021 requires police to issue written warnings to underage alcohol and marijuana users, notify parents if the law-breaker is under 18, and provide referrals for repeat offenders to community-based drug education and treatment.

“We have always historically responded to substance use with more criminalization,” Kachalia said. “The fact is that we have to be thinking of other ways to support young people, and certainly funneling them into the criminal legal system is not the answer.”

Police power stripped?

Still, critics say state lawmakers wrongly went beyond protecting youth to intimidating officers.

Officers can be charged with official deprivation of civil rights if they knowingly but not necessarily intentionally violate the cannabis law’s requirements for investigating underage use. That charge is a third-degree offense that carries a punishment of up to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

That has had a chilling effect on policing underage alcohol or marijuana use, one critic said.

“Teenagers are well aware that police officers aren’t going to risk their careers or their freedom to stop them from drinking or smoking pot in public,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “The Legislature gave kids an inch, and they’ve taken mile after mile of our beaches and boardwalks.”

O’Scanlon introduced a bill last year with Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) that would remove the criminal liability for an officer investigating an underage person in possession of alcohol or cannabis.

Another bill Bucco introduced in February with Sens. Michael Testa Jr. (R-Cumberland) and James Beach (D-Camden) would reinstate the penalties for underage drinking that were in place before the cannabis law and remove the investigative prohibitions on officers who encounter underage drinkers.

“We warned two years ago that stripping police of their ability to hold law-breaking teens accountable would lead to chaos in our communities, especially those with beaches and boardwalks during the summer season,” Bucco said in a statement Friday. “The Legislature has an obligation to fix its mistake and allow law enforcement officers to actually enforce the law.”

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