Dear Fairfield Residents:
Like many of my colleagues have already done or are currently doing, I am writing to address a highly controversial topic prevalent in New Jersey news these past two weeks. It involves the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. My purpose is to educate you about the new laws and expose a serious concern for our community regarding marijuana and alcohol use by our most vulnerable and impressionable residents: our children.
In November 2020, a referendum on the general election ballot posed the following question: should marijuana be legalized in New Jersey? The residents of New Jersey spoke and overwhelmingly answered “yes” by a nearly 2 to 1 vote in favor of legalization. In the months following, legislators took to the task of creating new laws and revising old ones to legalize marijuana.
On February 22, 2021, Governor Murphy signed into law three new bills: A21 which makes “regulated cannabis” legal, A1897 which decriminalizes marijuana possession and S3454 which outlines rules and penalties for those under 21 caught with illegal substances. The latter bill concerns me the most as it directly impacts your ability to parent and severely hampers law enforcement’s role in intervening when we see children using drugs and alcohol. I will discuss the third bill in a moment but want to educate you regarding the other laws as well.
“Regulated Cannabis” is the lawmakers’ term for legal cannabis products. These products don’t exist yet as the Cannabis Regulatory Committee still has yet to formulate exactly how legal cannabis products can be bought, sold and consumed in New Jersey. Regulated Cannabis will include marijuana or THC edibles (think brownies and gummies) and even marijuana itself. Anyone over 21 will be allowed to legally possess and consume such products.
“Marijuana” – according to the new legislation – refers to illegal weed in New Jersey. This is the marijuana bought and sold illegally on the black market or street corner. The new law still defines “marijuana” as a Controlled Dangerous Substance but has almost entirely decriminalized its possession and use. For instance, a person over 21 found in possession of 6 ounces or less of marijuana will never be arrested or charged. It is no longer an offense. Someone caught possessing more than 6 ounces will similarly never be arrested and would - at most - receive a criminal charge in the mail prompting a court appearance. The odor of marijuana is no longer reason for police to stop or detain anyone in the state and can no longer be used as a reason to search a person, their belongings, or their vehicle.
These two laws pertain to adults aged 21 and over. The most troubling new law concerns the possession or consumption of marijuana, regulated cannabis, hashish or alcohol by individuals under 21. Under the framework of this new and revised law, those under 21 caught possessing or consuming legalized cannabis products, illegal weed or alcohol will never be arrested, searched, or charged with anything. Instead, the legislators mandated a written warning system to track such offenses. Here’s the catch: this written warning system doesn’t exist, and lawmakers and law enforcement alike have no idea how such a system will be created and maintained.
According to this warning system, police officers shall not notify or tell a parent should their child be caught possessing or consuming regulated cannabis, marijuana, hashish or alcohol for a first offense. In fact, should a police officer falter and mistakenly tell a parent about the first offense encounter, the officer could face criminal charges for third degree Deprivation of Civil Rights. Such a serious criminal offense against an officer could certainly end a career as they could even face jail time and heavy fines.
The written warning system to track such offenses doesn’t exist yet and will be months in the making. In the interim, officers are forced to err on the side of believing it was a child’s first offense. Please let that sobering reality sink in. If an officer finds your child consuming or possessing these illegal products, we cannot tell you or the officer faces criminal charges.
I am a father and law enforcement veteran with over 36 years of experience. I am floored by the gross overreach of this new law. The Fairfield Township Police Department has always dedicated itself to the protection and service of our residents and those who enjoy our community for work and play. We have always sought to help and guide our young residents through community outreach programs like DARE and LEAD. I was a DARE instructor myself. This new law goes against everything we have taught our children for years regarding their health and safety. Worse yet, this new law strips parents of their very right to do just that: parent.
In my years of experience, I have driven many juveniles home and had long conversations with parents about their child’s possession or use of alcohol and drugs. While most offenses were extremely minor in nature, the police contact often served as an awakening for the juvenile who knew their actions were wrong and dangerous. Many years later I would receive notes of thanks or handshakes from these very same juveniles (now adults) and their parents. Their gratitude addressed the fact that we saw something potentially dangerous, acted appropriately and potentially changed the course of a young and impressionable life. This important police/citizen contact – the very reason we protect and serve – is now in jeopardy as officers will inevitably fear such encounters and their potentially grave consequences.
This concerns me greatly as I sincerely worry about the safety and well-being of our children and your ability to parent them.
To drive this point home, allow me to offer two scenarios for consideration.
Scenario One- Your 14-year-old son is caught in the park possessing six ounces of marijuana, a bag full of THC gummies or a six pack of beer. Right now, cops would issue your son a written warning (which doesn’t exist) and cannot tell you - the parent - about the encounter. Until a centralized warning system is established (which will take months at least) officers would have no way of proving it was a second or subsequent offense. So, in essence, your child could be caught in Wayne, West Caldwell, Roseland and
Fairfield and every encounter will have the same conclusion: a written warning and no parental notification under penalty of law.
Scenario Two- Your 17-year-old daughter is a passenger in a car stopped by the police. She is found smoking a marijuana cigar along with other juveniles in the car. Assuming the driver is not impaired, they will all receive a warning and – you guessed it – you will never know about this encounter and potential recipe for disaster.
I, and the entire Fairfield Police Department, are outraged by these new laws that seem to trivialize drug and alcohol use by our children. These laws have missed their mark. The legalization of cannabis products for use by responsible adults is one thing; legislating how to parent and criminally charging cops for helping kids is something completely different.
So, what can we do about this? I urge you: let your voice be heard if anything within this letter struck a chord within you. Contact your local legislative leaders and representatives and share your concerns, comments, or questions.
What have I done as Chief of Police to address the confusing legal landscape muddied by the passage of these laws? I immediately ordered the entire department be trained in the nuances of the new laws. In less than one week, nearly every officer and detective attended an in-person lecture aimed at clarifying the new and confusing laws. I’ve encouraged officers to focus on dangerous, impaired drivers to get them off the road to protect the motoring innocent. I’ve encouraged officers to act if they see something unsafe – like a highly intoxicated young boy or girl in need of medical attention or parental supervision – because we still have a sworn duty to care for our community and protect life.
As always, the men and women of the Fairfield Township Police Department stand proud and ready to protect and serve this community which we love so dearly. This promise is written into our mission statement and carried by every officer sworn to serve: “With Faith in our Community and Honor in our work ethic, we will strive to Protect and Serve with Excellence.”
Anthony G. Manna,
Chief of Police