BRIDGEWATER, NJ – With recent legislation passed regarding the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey has come debate over regulations in the law about how police officers handle juveniles who are in possession of the drug and whether information needs to be relayed to parents.
Legislation approved in late February will allow for adults to legally possess as much as six ounces of marijuana and mean relief for anyone previously subject to arrest for petty marijuana possession.
Bridgewater Township Police Chief Paul Payne said the department’s mission statement indicates that the men and women of the agency are committed to providing effective police service to all those within their jurisdictions, while working to reduce crime and the fear of it through cooperative interaction with the community.
“We strive to enhance the quality of life for all members of the community,” he said. “The signing of the legislation to decriminalize marijuana and regulate cannabis has affected not only law enforcement, but the right of parents to be parents.”
“We believe parents deserve to know when their children are in potentially dangerous situations, so we want you to be informed of the recent changes and impacts,” he added.
With the new legislation, Payne said, the odor of marijuana or alcohol does not constitute reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop of someone under age 21, and it does not provide probable cause to search a vehicle or personal property.
In addition, Payne said, police will not be allowed to initiate a search of an individual under the age of 21 just because officers see an unconcealed alcoholic beverage or marijuana that is in plain site.
Any person under 21 who has marijuana or alcohol, Payne said, cannot be arrested, detained or taken into custody except to issue a written warning, and, for any individual under 21 who is found to have the drug or alcohol as a first offense, police are not allowed to contact a parent or guardian.
“Our only action that will be taken will be to issue a written warning, which will not be provided to the individual’s parent or guardian,” he said.
Payne said the police department does not want to see their line of communication taken away after they have worked for years to build a good rapport with the children in the community, parents and school officials.
But, Payne said, they will move forward as best they can.
“Like many agencies in New Jersey, we will overcome the changes in the laws while adhering to the guidelines established by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office,” he said.
At this time, now more than ever, Payne said, law enforcement needs to work on connecting with its community, and one of the ways they are looking to do that is by reaching the children in the school system through programs like D.A.R.E.
“With the full support of Mayor (Matthew) Moench, myself, Capt. (John) Mitzak and Capt. Sean O’Neill have begun to work with New Jersey State D.A.R.E. Coordinator Jack Bennett to bring D.A.R.E back to the Bridgewater-Raritan school district to address the issues,” Payne said.
Payne said the department currently has two youth officers, Garrett VanDoren and Typan Barnett, who are very active with school staff and students. In the future, he said, they will consider adding more resources and personnel to expand the Youth Services Bureau.
Moench has also called on the township council to move forward with an ordinance prohibiting recreational marijuana dispensaries in town, and another prohibiting smoking marijuana in any public place.
For now, Payne said, this new legislation will have significant impacts on the community.
“Not only will law enforcement be challenged by this legislation and the fear of criminal charges if there is one little misstep by the officer, but it will also affect parental rights and impact our youth,” he said. “In addition, the quality of life for the community members may be affected by the odor of marijuana in their community, negative health and wellness of those under the influence of marijuana and its impacts on those around them, including increased driving under the influence and potential dangers that drugs bring due to their association with other crimes.”
But, Payne said, the police department will continue to provide the services residents have come to expect.
“Together, we as a community will work to navigate through these difficult times,” he said.