The day after New Jersey’s governor signed bills to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, the state’s attorney general directed prosecutors to drop cases for cannabis-related offenses and issued separate guidance for police on how to proceed under the updated laws.
Prosecutors should stop pursuing cases for certain marijuana conduct that took place prior to the signing of the legislation on February 22, the new notice states. Law enforcement agencies were separately informed about what marijuana activity has been made legal and the revised penalties for youth possession and cannabis distribution.
Today, we launched a new resource page for NJ police officers and prosecutors regarding marijuana decriminalization and cannabis legalization. We’ll continue to update the page as NJ implements the laws signed yesterday by @GovMurphy.— AG Gurbir Grewal (@NewJerseyOAG) February 23, 2021
For more, visit https://t.co/7fpnwxnUyi.
While New Jersey voters approved a legalization referendum during the November election—and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) encouraged prosecutorial discretion for marijuana cases in earlier memos—police have continued to enforce criminalization in the absence of regulations.
Now that Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has signed enabling legislation—in addition to a separate decriminalization bill and a compromise measure on youth penalties—Grewal is using his authority to prevent ongoing arrests and prosecutions of people for activity that’s been made lawful.
The first directive “instructs state, county, and municipal prosecutors to dismiss charges pending as of February 22, 2021 for any marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under state law.”
The second “provides guidance to law enforcement officers regarding new enforcement requirements pursuant to the marijuana decriminalization law.”
Legal cannabis sales won’t launch for several months, so the attorney general said that interim guidance is necessary so that people don’t continue to be caught up in the criminal justice system over marijuana possession or consumption.
The notice to prosecutors lists eight statutes that should be dismissed:
It also stipulates that, for cannabis cases that have already been resolved, the new decriminalization law makes it so the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts “will vacate by operation of law any guilty verdict, plea, placement in a diversionary program, or other entry of guilt on a matter where the conduct occurred prior to February 22, 2021.”
“Also vacated will be any conviction, remaining sentence, ongoing supervision, or unpaid court-ordered financial assessment of any person who is or will be serving a sentence of incarceration, probation, parole or other form of community supervision as of February 22, 2021 as a result of the person’s conviction or adjudication of delinquency solely for the above listed charges,” it continues.
For the law enforcement-focused guidance, Grewal’s office urged police to “familiarize themselves with the three new laws” Murphy signed as it relates to marijuana. He described six cannabis-related activities that are no longer illegal under state law:
-Simple possession of 6 ounces or less of marijuana, 2C:35-10(a)(4)(b);
-Simple possession of 17 grams or less of hashish, 2C:35-10(a)(4)(b);
-Being under the influence of marijuana or hashish, 2C:35-10(b);
-Failure to properly dispose of marijuana or hashish, 2C:35-10(c);
-Possession of paraphernalia for marijuana or hashish, 2C:36-2; and
-Possession of marijuana or hashish as a motor vehicle operator, 39:4-49.1
Further, it clarified new thresholds for possession and distribution that law enforcement should keep in mind:
For distribution of up to one ounce of marijuana, people who commit a first offense will be subject to a written warning. Grewal’s office said police departments will “need to build new mechanisms to track the issuance of such warnings” in the coming weeks. And in the interim, agencies should rely on existing resources to track warnings and, out of an abundance of caution, treat any individual’s offense as a first offense unless the officer has clear evidence of a prior violation.”
Those under 21 who are caught possessing or consuming cannabis for the first time will also be subject to a written warning, per the new law. And those warnings “shall not be provided to the individual’s parent or guardian.” A second offense would involve another written warning, and law enforcement would be required to provide the person with “informational materials on community drug treatment services.”
Police can no longer use the odor of marijuana to justify a search of a person under 21, and officers must activate a body camera when engaging suspects for the aforementioned offenses.
While it’s been a long road to passing marijuana enabling legislation in New Jersey, Murphy did separately sign a bill this month that reclassifies possession of up to an ounce of psilocybin mushrooms as a disorderly persons offense.