“I don’t know if they have the correct guidance on how to charge without overstepping.”
By Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, New Jersey Monitor
A New Jersey state lawmaker who visited Colorado and saw how the first state to sell legal recreational cannabis deals with motorists driving under the influence wants to create a marijuana enforcement division under the state Attorney General’s Office.
Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D) said she wants the new division to compile data to give law enforcement officers some clarity on the state’s cannabis law, which she said has left them confused over when they can and can’t charge drivers with a marijuana offense.
“I don’t know if they have the correct guidance on how to charge without overstepping,” Speight said.
The bill would task the new marijuana enforcement division with creating a database that includes information on arrests made for driving under the influence where cannabis possession or use is involved; arrests, dismissals, convictions, and adjudications of cannabis charges; and marijuana seized by officers.
The data would be presented annually to the governor and Legislature, and include any recommendations for improvements. The bill would also require the division to create a public awareness campaign about cannabis use while driving.
Speight said she got the idea for the bill after visiting Colorado in the summer of 2022. There, officials in an office under the state’s criminal justice division keep track of marijuana offenses in a centralized system, and New Jersey has no similar database, she said.
“When I saw what they were doing over there, I started thinking about how that would be good for our state,” she said. “I like the fact that they have a certain division handling and keeping track of these cases.”
The bill was introduced earlier this month and is sponsored by Sen. Vin Gopal (D) in the Senate. It’s been referred to both chambers’ law and public safety committees.
Speight said she’s troubled by stories of cannabis cases that have left New Jersey law enforcement officers confused. She said officers are taking a more “hands-off” approach in some of these cases because of how the state’s cannabis legalization law is written.
“It’s really complicated for officers to deal with,” she said.
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Marijuana is legal in New Jersey for anyone over 21, and people can possess up to six ounces. If you’re over 21, police can’t arrest you for possessing more than six ounces but can issue a summons. Cops can’t use marijuana odor as a reason to search a car or determine whether someone possesses too much marijuana.
Officers can be charged with official deprivation of civil rights if they knowingly, but not necessarily intentionally, violate the cannabis law’s requirements for investigating marijuana use by anyone under 21. Cops face up to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
This all creates a gray area for officers who suspect motorists they stop possess too much weed or are under the influence of cannabis, according to Speight. Adding to the officers’ confusion, while it’s illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis, there’s currently no true way to test if someone is high when they are stopped.
She said she wants to work with cannabis advocates and law enforcement on potential amendments to the bill.
“All of this gets kind of complicated to me, but I don’t think it should be ignored. It should be addressed,” she added.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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