Republicans Raise Alarm as Assembly Revises Penalties for Underage Pot Possession

The debate around penalties for underage pot possession – and specifically the issue of communications by law enforcement with parents of kids with pot – spawned multiple mostly partisan debates on the floor of the assembly, including a telling collision between Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39) and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35).

Republicans strenuously opposed the bill. “Hell, no,” Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-23) said when he voted.

Democrats (mostly avidly) pushed it across the finish line.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33) abstained.

The final vote was 49-27-1.

“If you are the parent of a child you want to be aware of a child heading down the wrong path,” Schepisi said. “I still don’t understand why there is a prohibition on parents being notified about a minor child.”

A co-prime sponsor of the bill, Wimberly defended A-5342.

“The officer can confiscate what is visible,” he said.

“We have faced systemic racism in America,” the assemblyman said later. “Black youth are over 30 times likely to be detained.”

“This bill is surreal,” said an exasperated Assemblywoman Schepisi, who is running for the state senate. “This bill is going to drag all of our youth into the gutter.”

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-13) likewise denounced the bill as an attack on parenting.

“I’m pretty sure every parent wants to know if their child is doing drugs or drinking,” the assemblywoman added.

“The bill is being rushed again,” complained Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24).

Arguing in favor of the bill, which paves the way for marijuana legalization in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) said it aims at limiting officer interaction with youth. “This is not the end,” she acknowledged, but “this bill has a progressive warning system.”

According to the language of Assembly Bill 5342:

 A “point-of-violation warning” is defined in the bill as “a brief, informal interaction between a law enforcement officer and a person under the age of 18 years who the officer observed engage in a violation . . . .  During the interaction, the officer shall counsel the person to discontinue the conduct, warn the person about the potential consequences of future delinquency, and then conclude the interaction without taking any further action.”  This type of warning would also be used for a first offender of any age for violating subparagraph (b) of paragraph (12) of subsection b. of N.J.S.2C:35-5 for manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing, or having under control with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense one ounce or less of marijuana or five grams or less of hashish.  Such warning would be reported to the Attorney General in the same manner as curbside adjustments pursuant to Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2020-12​, and this reporting could also include information for use in determining whether a person had previously been subjected to a point-of-violation warning to determine a second or subsequent offense, which is a crime of the fourth degree (punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000, or both).

It would revise the consequences associated with the underage possession or consumption of illegal marijuana or hashish, or legalized cannabis items which may only be lawfully possessed by persons 21 years of age or older pursuant to Article IV, Section VII, paragraph 13 of the New Jersey Constitution and the enabling legislation to establish a legal, regulated cannabis marketplace, the Second Reprint of Assembly Bill No. 21, which passed both Houses of the Legislature on December 17, 2020.  It also addresses, for persons of any age, the written warning to be issued by law enforcement officers for a small amount marijuana or hashish distribution first offense, as created by that bill.

The bill would make the underage possession of marijuana, hashish, or a cannabis item a civil penalty of $50 for persons who are between 18 and 20 years of age, if the amount possessed is what a person of legal age could lawfully possess (determined based on the lawful possession of one ounce (28.35 grams) or less of useable cannabis, the equivalent amount in a cannabis product in solid, liquid, or concentrate form, or 5 grams or less of cannabis resin, per section 46 of the Second Reprint of Assembly Bill No. 21).  For the underage possession of more than what a person of legal age could lawfully possess, or any consumption of marijuana, hashish, or cannabis item, the civil penalty for persons who are between 18 and 20 years of age would be set at $100

The civil penalty would be recovered in a summary proceeding in the name of the municipality pursuant to the “Penalty Enforcement Law of 1999,” P.L.1999, c.274 (C.2A:58-10 et seq.).  Both the municipal court with territorial jurisdiction over an underage possession violation and the Superior Court would have jurisdiction of proceedings for the enforcement of a civil penalty.

Amendments to the bill passed by a vote of 47-26-3 before kicking the bill to the Senate, where it the bill passed.

Editor’s Note: I updated this post at 11:43 a.m.

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