Legislation Proposed to Reinstate Penalties for Underage Alcohol and Cannabis Possession in New Jersey

NEW JERSEY: Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-13) has put forth a new bill aimed at reintroducing penalties for underage possession and consumption of alcohol and cannabis. The legislation seeks to address a perceived gap in the law that was created when cannabis was legalized in the state in 2020, eliminating penalties for underage use and possession of both substances.

Senator O’Scanlon expressed his concerns, stating, “When New Jersey residents voted to legalize cannabis in 2020, it was with the understanding that it would remain illegal for individuals under the age of 21. However, when legislation was later enacted to formalize cannabis legalization, which I opposed due to significant flaws in the bill, it inadvertently removed penalties for underage use and possession of not just cannabis, but alcohol as well.”

Presently, individuals under the age of 21 caught with alcohol or cannabis products face a written warning from law enforcement, and if the person is a minor, their parents are notified of the violation. On a third offense, individuals receive a referral for community services, but declining these services does not incur any penalties.

Senator O’Scanlon noted a rise in the illegal use of alcohol and cannabis by young people since the vote to legalize cannabis. He also highlighted the emergence of rowdy pop-up beach parties, which have become increasingly uncontrollable. The proposed legislation aims to send a clear message that underage consumption of alcohol and cannabis remains illegal, and those who violate the law will be held accountable. It seeks to reinstate the penalties for underage drinking and cannabis use, which were previously effective in addressing the problems seen today.

Furthermore, the existing law prohibits law enforcement officers from searching underage individuals based solely on the odor of alcohol or cannabis. This restriction allows individuals to conceal these substances in pockets or backpacks until officers leave, effectively avoiding confiscation. However, officers who violate the search prohibition can face serious criminal charges and significant prison time.

Senator O’Scanlon’s bill, S-3973, proposes amendments to revoke the existing written warning system and reinstate underage consumption and possession of alcohol and cannabis as disorderly person offenses. Violators would face a fine of no less than $500. The bill also grants officers the authority to conduct searches when appropriate, without fear of criminal prosecution.

Under the proposed legislation, the court may also require offenders to attend educational or treatment programs authorized by the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Human Services. This provision aims to facilitate access to necessary support and assistance for individuals struggling with substance abuse.

The penalties for underage alcohol use and possession were in effect for many years prior to the legalization of cannabis. The removal of these penalties has had a clear negative impact on public safety and quality of life in the state.

“When rowdy, intoxicated teens are allowed to engage in lawlessness, as we have witnessed in our shore towns, it negatively affects residents, tourists, and business owners,” added Senator O’Scanlon. “We need to shift our focus away from impeding routine police work and redirect it towards holding young people accountable for the harm they cause when they are inebriated in public or behind the wheel. This bill would restore authority to the police to perform their duties while discouraging young individuals from endangering themselves and the communities where they gather.”

Last updated on: July 20, 2023

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