New Jersey Police Protest Long-Awaited Marijuana Reforms

    On a Jersey Shore boardwalk on March 20, the Ocean County Police Chiefs Association stood together in front of a truck, nearly blocking lettering on the side that read: “Don’t Let Trenton Handcuff Your Police.” They had gathered in Point Pleasant—alongside local legislators including Point Pleasant Mayor Paul Kanitra, State Senator Robert Singer and State Assemblyman John Catalano—to speak out against a provision in the state’s endlessly stalled cannabis bills.

    Legalizing marijuana in New Jersey has been a tumultuous process. A campaign promise of Governor Phil Murphy, he was unable to accomplish it until he put the question to voters in November 2020. They passed it by a wide margin.

    Since 2017, the process of carving out the legislation has hit countless pitfalls, as activists and lawmakers have fought over expungement of past marijuana offenses, the expansion of the medical marijuana program, tax credits and even whether or not to decriminalize psilocybin.

    In February, a series of compromised bills finally landed on Murphy’s desk. They included decriminalizing the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana and—once again—beginning the slow process of setting up a legal weed industry.

    Murphy had long struggled to incorporate racial equity into New Jersey’s eventual legalization. The state has previously ranked third in the country for both total marijuana arrests and arrests per capita, with Black residents arrested at triple the rate of white residents (Black and white Americans use marijuana at equal rates). Police have continued to charge thousands of people with possession, even after the referendum passed.

    The law enforcement community in New Jersey includes some of the most vocal critics of the policy.

    One of the new measures, which the police officers and elected officials were protesting at Point Pleasant and which Murphy has already signaled he’d scale back, would prohibit police from notifying minors’ parents if they were found in possession of marijuana or alcohol. It would also subject officers to criminal consequences for any illegal searches of people under the age of 21—in effect, expanding the crime of official deprivation of civil rights that already applies to public servants under an existing New Jersey law.

    “You wouldn’t be able to use the odor of marijuana any longer to initiate searches.”

    The revised law for under-21s in possession of cannabis or alcohol would operate on a tier system. The first instance would earn a written warning; for the second, parents or guardians would be alerted and given information on educational programs for drug use; for the third, the underage person would be referred to available community services.

    “Holistically, what this law does is it would take away a lot of tools that police have used and weaponized over the years to target certain communities,” Amol Sinha, executive director of ACLU-NJ, told Filter. “You wouldn’t be able to use the odor of marijuana any longer to initiate searches.”

    At the Point Pleasant protest, the ongoing conflict was on full display. Joseph Michigan, the Point Pleasant Beach police chief and president of the Police Chiefs Association, stated that “this legislation turns our kids into innocent collateral damage in the quest for social justice in New Jersey.” Mayor Kanitra called it the “latest hot piece of garbage out of the statehouse.”

    Each speaker echoed the fears laid out on the banner behind them: that this would villianize officers and prevent them from doing their jobs.

    “This is a disgusting piece of legislation,” State Senator Singer said to the crowd. “Now I’m sitting on the beach with my family,” he continued. “We smell marijuana. We see some kids drinking. We go over to the lifeguard station. They call the beach patrol. You know what’s going to happen. They’re going to come to me and say, ‘Sir, you’re going to have to move.’” Neither Kanitra nor Singer responded to Filter’s request for comment.

    “An interaction with a police officer can lead to something that’s more harmful, violent and traumatic than the supposed harm in the first place.”

    Drug policy reform activists across New Jersey, however, have praised the legislation, citing it as a way to move past a legal framework that has long failed the state’s youth and residents of color. It would further remove the criminal element of possession—of both cannabis and alcohol.

    “An interaction with a police officer can lead to something more harmful, violent and traumatic than the supposed harm in the first place,” Sinha said.

    Matt Sutton, director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance*, agreed. “Overall, we are trying to eliminate as much law enforcement contact as possible,” he told Filter. “Provisions like these can just lead to more unnecessary criminalization of our youth and the potential for harmful law enforcement interactions.”

    Point Pleasant is a popular Jersey Shore destination. As Kanitra told NJ Advance Media this past summer, the population can swell from its off-season 4,500 to more than 50,000 in the summer.

    This isn’t the first time that conflict between the local government and the state has arisen. In May, as people began leaving their homes for the warm weather after a COVID winter, Kanitra tried to limit the beach for residents only; Governor Murphy overruled his decision. Later that same month, Point Pleasant restricted beach parking for residents. Then in June, a pop-up party—comprising mostly people of color—made headlines in the state. Kanitra said that the partygoers had treated the town “like an absolute toilet.”

    He then added more law enforcement in the area.

     


     

    * DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • Alex Norcia

      Alex is a staff writer at Filter. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Nation and The Daily Beast, among other outlets. He is also a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received both restricted and general support grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Alex is currently based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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