⭕ Social justice reforms lead to a surge in public drinking and weed use among teens

⭕ Lawmakers are looking to empower police to combat the problem

⭕ Social justice advocates warn of consequences if the law is changed

When legislation was passed legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults in New Jersey, decriminalization provisions were included that severely tied the hands of police when it came to combating underage usage.

Aside from banning police from searching minors if they suspected alcohol or weed use, the new law subjected police to criminal charges and possible jail time if they notified parents or guardians,

These children are not stupid. They know what the law is. - Rob Nixon, NJ PBA

Lawmakers in Trenton are on the verge of adding some teeth back into underage drinking and weed usage.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee has approved legislation that would impose a $50 fine on anyone under the age of 21 who is found with weed or booze. it also requires that parents or guardians be notified if the offender is under the age of 18.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) is chairman of the budget committee, and said recent reports of underage kids brazenly smoking weed or drinking in public demanded changes be made.

"If we don't do something, we might as well say you can drink openly as a teenager," Sarlo told fellow committee members before the vote.

Police in Long Branch during a pop-up party
Police in Long Branch during a pop-up party 5/12/23 (The Link News)

Law enforcement urges change

Rob Nixon with the New Jersey PBA told the committee, "These kids are not stupid. They know what the law is."

Fines and fees don't necessarily deter youth from engaging with these substances - Austin Edwards, Salvation and Social Justice

Nixon says the current law ties the hands of police to enforce the law, and encourages open drinking and marijuana smoking, often right in front of the police.

"You need to unshackle the police to come in an protect those kids," Nixon said.

Long Branch considers legal action after pop up parties (Townsquare Media)
Long Branch considers legal action after pop up parties (Townsquare Media)

Social justice advocates warn of problems

The reason the decriminalization provisions were included in the original law was to prevent social injustice, especially among Black and brown populations.

Studies have shown drug usage is about the same for Black and white populations, but Blacks are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession.

attachment-Sen. Paul Sarlo Budget Committee Chairman

Changes to the legislation will set back efforts to correct that, according to Charlene Walker, executive director for the group Faith in New Jersey.

Other social justice advocates warned poor families could not afford the fines or the loss of pay from having to take a day off from work to take their child to court.

What's next?

The bill changing the original law was approved unanimously in committee.

It will now go before the full Senate for a vote and, if approved, to Gov. Phil Murphy.

This is really going to set Black, brown and poor families back across this entire state - Charlene Walker, Faith in New Jersey

The bill has already unanimously passed the Assembly.

Murphy has not said if he will sign the changes into law.

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