Our state government has finally ended the war on marijuana in New Jersey, not only by legalizing it for adults, but by declaring that the practice of arresting children for actions that are now legal for their parents must end. Immediately. Finally.
Gov. Murphy concluded this three-year odyssey by signing a bill that standardizes the penalties for possession of cannabis and alcohol by minors. It is undeniably lenient, compared to the decades-old policy of traumatizing a kid with a police record if he’s caught with a joint, a tradition that turbocharged America’s legacy of racist enforcement and mass incarceration.
Now, a first violation gets the minor a personal warning, a second violation requires a warning sent to his parents, and a third violation comes with a referral to community-based support, such as drug education programs or mentorships.
Yes, the law enforcement role is substantially reduced — a welcome termination to New Jersey’s criminalized response to cannabis use by kids — and only a strict monitoring of their usage going forward will determine whether this is a more effective solution than the previous disgrace.
We already have the road map: It took education, engagement, and enforcement to torpedo tobacco use among minors, and “We can do the same with marijuana,” says bill sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari, (D-Union). “We did an amazing job with cigarettes. . . .by giving them the necessary information, not by criminalizing it.”
And let’s not quibble here: The previous weed deterrent was a playfield for bigots.
Just 13 percent of our kids are Black, but young Blacks accounted for 24 percent of juvenile pot possession arrests in 2018 despite the same usage rates among races. Since 2001, the possession arrests for Black kids have gone up 6% (from 12 to 18%), while white juvenile pot arrests have dropped 6%.
If we are committed to social and racial justice, we cannot continue to arrest children wholesale: Nearly 12,000 suspects under 21 were arrested for marijuana in New Jersey in 2016. That was 37% of all pot busts that year.
And the prevalence of legal pot does not contribute to a higher use among adolescents, the Centers for Disease Control found. The CDC examined marijuana use among adolescents in the first three states to legalize recreational weed — Washington, Colorado and Oregon — and found that usage among kids dropped in the after legalization.
As Scutari suggested, information is critical.
“Young people take risks, including experimentation with marijuana,” Rutgers juvenile justice expert Laura Cohen told a Senate panel. “At the same time, the overwhelming number of children will simply outgrow risk-taking – particularly with the kind of public health education that we’re talking about.”
The police disagree. The PBA did not reply to calls, but its statement instructs citizens who want to report underage marijuana to “not call 9-1-1. Call the governor’s office or your local state legislator. We have literally been handcuffed.”
They voice legitimate concerns about how the law creates “much guess work and uncertainty” when it comes to taking action, but 13 other states legalized marijuana and were able to retrain their police. They figured it out. Our cops will as well.
Some lawmakers who opposed the bill claim that police cannot contact parents when they witness minors with marijuana — actually, a second violation mandates that they do. But Sen. Teresa Ruiz said it best: If she sees one of her former students with a joint, the only call she makes is to his mom. It takes a village, not a cop.
It is true that police can no longer use the odor of marijuana smoke as a pretext to a search, which ACLU-NJ director Amol Sinha says “takes away a tool they so comfortably rely on for decades of problematic searches, so I’m not surprised they object.”
It is untrue that police will be subject to a flood of lawsuits under the Deprivation of Civil Rights statute if they search an underage person without consent: “That statute already exists — we only expanded it to all classes of people, rather than people protected by race, etc.” Scutari said.
And not only does the statute exist, no cop has ever been convicted under it, the ACLU said.
The PBA has yet to acknowledge that the punitive approach was an epic failure that ruined countless lives. It seems more concerned with officer liability than public safety.
Police can confiscate a kid’s weed or alcohol when in the process of issuing a warning, but lawmakers deliberately intended to wall them off, placing the pressure where it belongs — on parents to educate and the state to punish those who would distribute to minors.
Some will claim this bill endorses underage marijuana use, which is not exactly the case. This is an admission that we have finally learned from a catastrophic misconception that police can raise our kids.