WESTFIELD, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills last month that legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey. The “cleanup” bill clarifying how police may respond to minors in possession of marijuana is facing criticism from the Westfield police chief, but the bill’s lead sponsor is not backing down.

Bill 3454 outlines penalties for individuals under the age of 18 who possess or consume marijuana. Minors who use or possess the substance are subject to written warnings from law enforcement officers. On their first violation, the written notification shall not be provided to the underage individual's parent or guardian. 

The bill also stops officers from arresting persons under 18 who use or possess marijuana or from detaining them except to the extent required to issue a written warning.

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“The odor of marijuana, hashish, cannabis, or cannabis item... shall not constitute reasonable articulable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop of a person,” according to the legislation.

Westfield Police Chief Christopher Battiloro posted a lengthy letter on Facebook saying he is “extremely upset — and, in fact, very angered” by these and other aspects of the new law.

Battiloro’s main complaint is that the new law prevents police from notifying parents or guardians of underage youth that they are using or possessing marijuana on their first offense.

“If an officer observes a 12-year-old — or a juvenile of any age — consuming alcohol and/or smoking marijuana in violation of the law, that officer CANNOT contact the juvenile’s parent or guardian — unless this behavior has been previously documented,” he said. “Unless that child chooses to share this information, his or her parents or guardians will never know.”

The office of Assemblyman Republican Leader Jon Bramnick wrote in a statement last week that he will introduce legislation to repeal the parental notification provision.

Bramnick told TAPinto Westfield Monday that such legislation would be unlikely to pass, but he thinks legislators should vote on whether they are willing to take the provision out of the law. 

“This is clearly an overreaction by the legislature,” Bramnick said. “The ballot question was recreational marijuana for adults. I’m assuming people weren’t endorsing marijuana for 14-year-olds in Mindowaskin Park.”

State Sen. Nick Scutari, a lead sponsor of the legislation to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, stood behind the bill in a phone interview with TAPinto Westfield.

Scutari said the bill reflects a push to reduce police involvement around marijuana in communities of color, communities statistics have shown are disproportionately arrested for marijuana use and possession.

The ACLU has reported Black people in New Jersey were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in 2018. In Union County, Black people were four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than white people in that year, the ACLU report said.

 “This bill is about justice,” said Scutari, who is a Democrat. “It didn’t seem just to lock people up for a substance that’s less dangerous than alcohol.”

In the push to get the bill to Murphy’s desk, he said some legislators — including himself — wanted more penalties for underage users and some wanted none. 

“Bills are always a compromise. That was a compromise that was required, and that was put into the bill,” Scutari said. 

The state senator said anyone who is going to introduce a new bill should first wait to see how the newly passed legislation is working.

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