New N.J. legal weed bill would ease underage drinking penalties

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The long, strange trip New Jersey lawmakers are taking in the quest to legalize marijuana just took an unexpected detour.

A plan to create civil penalties for those under 21 caught with weed has evolved into an effort to decriminalize underage drinking.

This is the last attempt by lawmakers to compromise with Gov. Phil Murphy on penalties for underage marijuana use, something he has said must be in place before he signs bills to legalize and decriminalize weed in New Jersey.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill Friday afternoon in a meeting that included no public testimony on new amendments. Lawmakers had twice canceled the vote and then called off the bill altogether, only to resume negotiations a day later.

It must now go before the full Senate and Assembly Monday. That’s also the deadline for Murphy to sign or veto the bills to legalize and decriminalize marijuana. .

Those measures have a discrepancy: one makes underage use a crime as a disorderly persons offense and the other does away with all penalties for possession, no matter a person’s age.

Murphy initially asked lawmakers to pass a bill making the penalties clear, and suggested fines of $250 and $500 for marijuana use.

Lawmakers tried to pass two bills to clear up the problem, but both failed to enough support. The Assembly has even canceled meetings — and all other action on legislation — for two weeks to delay the deadline for Murphy to sign or veto the bills.

The latest proposal would weaken the rules for underage drinking and make them the same for underage weed use. The bill will levy only written warnings to those under 21 who use marijuana or alcohol. Repeated warnings would result in referral to community treatment and education programs, but the offenses would not carry fines, criminal records or jail time.

Friday’s update was the first time rules on alcohol use has been brought into the debate. It is currently a petty disorderly persons offense for those under 21.

It’s not clear how viable the plan will be before the full Senate and Assembly. Lawmakers have had lengthy discussions about marijuana reform, but not underage drinking.

In addition, the bill includes penalties for police who misuse their power when interacting with underage people on these offenses. If police intentionally and illegally stop, search or detain people for underage drinking or marijuana use, they could face a third degree charge of deprivation of civil rights. That’s punishable by a fine of $15,000 and up to five years in jail.

Both proposals could prove controversial.

“I think most parents would like people to behave responsibly, and if somebody does go wrong, they should be corrected,” said Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Hunterdon. “Underage consumption of alcohol and marijuana and the other items here, I don’t think anybody approves of that. The idea that police officers now have to walk on a very fine line — even if they try to do their job, what exactly is their job?”

Scutari said the language on police already exists in statute. This bill would allow people who do not fall into protected groups to claim an officer violated their rights in a stop.

“It makes it a slightly lower bar to make these claims,” he said. “But it’s still a pretty high bar.”

The bill also moves the burden from underage people who use marijuana or alcohol to those who provide young people with it. They can face $250 fines for a first offense and a petty disorderly offense for subsequent acts, which could result in a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, who has supported decriminalization but opposed legalization, requested another amendment that would remove qualified immunity for police from interactions with the public related to this bill. When Scutari said they would only focus on the amendments in place, Rice withdrew his support — despite playing a major role in crafting the policies with the Black Legislative Caucus.

Weeks of negotiations have left the governor with no good political options. He could sign the two bills as is, but he has repeatedly said he cannot make the discrepancies law.

He could instead conditionally veto them to request specific changes or do nothing and let them become law without his signature. But after making marijuana reform a key piece of his platform, such a move would likely draw criticism, too.

And signing the latest bill to suddenly decriminalize underage drinking without more time and pubic input could have its own fallout.

A spokesperson for Murphy declined to comment as to whether or not the governor would sign the bill with the underage drinking amendment.

During his press briefing on the coronavirus in Trenton Friday afternoon, Murphy said he had nothing new to report on marijuana discussions. He did not answer questions asking if he would conditionally veto the bills or order the Attorney General to halt arrests if the cleanup falls apart.

“There are a lot of folks doing everything they can to try to get this thing to a good place before the clock runs out,” he said. “We shall see. It’s too early to predict exactly where this lands, but god willing this lands in a good place.”

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Amanda Hoover may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj.

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