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You see it in towns all over New Jersey these days: teenagers hanging out, drinking beer and smoking pot in public.

Possession and consumption of alcohol and marijuana by anybody under the age of 21 is illegal in New Jersey but many teens are ignoring the law because it’s not being enforced, according to state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

“They really just have to put something in their pocket and the police can’t search them, so we’ve completely removed the ability of police to do their jobs,” he said.

Cops are handcuffed, he said

He pointed out that current state law prohibits law enforcement officers from searching underage individuals, even when the odor of alcohol or cannabis is detected.


If they do they can be charged, actually criminally, with deprivation of civil rights, it really goes that far,” he said.

O’Scanlon said under current state law, if a minor is caught red-handed drinking alcohol or smoking pot they will get a written warning from law enforcement and the minor’s parents will be notified of the violation. After a teen commits a third offense, they will receive a referral for community services, but there is no penalty for declining those services.

Re-establishing consequences

In response, he’s sponsoring bill S3973 that would re-establish underage consumption and possession of alcohol and cannabis products as a disorderly person offense subject to a fine of no less than $500. It would also permit officers to conduct searches when appropriate without the threat of criminal prosecution.

“If they (minors) know they can face a penalty if they know the police can search them and they know they can face a punishment with some teeth, they won’t do it,” he said.

The measure would also allow courts to once again require an offender to attend an educational or treatment program authorized by the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Human Services.

O’Scanlon said this will make it easier for those who struggle with substance abuse issues to get help.

The wilding of kids

He said the situation began to spiral out of control after New Jersey voters legalized cannabis in 2020.

“We see the result, the wilding of kids in our shore towns, consistently now since the bill was passed and it’s only grown each year.”

Pop-up party in Long Branch May 2022
Pop-up party in Long Branch May 2022 (Monmouth County Sheriff's Office)

He noted some shore communities “just over the past few weeks passed some pretty draconian laws and limits on people’s ability to use the beach, that is what they’re trying to go after, that’s what they’re trying to avoid, these pop-up parties.”

O’Scanlon said tougher penalties for teens were scrapped because some lawmakers were concerned about some police officers abusing the law.

“If that’s the case, if you have some bad officers — and any institution or organization you have some bad folks — you deal with it, you deal with them individually.”

The measure has been referred to the State Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

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