Hopewell Township police consider new marijuana laws ‘problematic’

PHOTO COURTESY OF VALLEY WELLNESS

Recently signed legislation by Gov. Phil Murphy legalizing and decriminalizing recreational marijuana has presented a specific hurdle for the Hopewell Township Police Department.

In a message released to residents of Hopewell Valley, police administration said that one aspect not expected under the new laws signed on Feb. 22 had been the prohibiting of police departments to notify parents or guardians, if young people under 21 years old are found to possess marijuana or alcoholic beverages as a first offense.

“This new law forbids officers 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,” the police department statement said in its March 3 statement.  “After reviewing the new policy, what presents itself as most problematic to the police department, is our inability to freely communicate with parents. We believe parents deserve and need to know when their children are in potentially dangerous situations.”

Under the new laws, police can only contact and notify parents or guardians on the second or subsequent offense.

“Unless the child chooses to share this information, parents will be left in the dark. We see these laws as not only counterproductive but also as a detriment to the safety of our children,” the statement said. “Our police department has always sought the implementation of non-punitive measures for the majority of juvenile offenses including underage alcohol or marijuana possession or consumption. Formal charges have always been a last resort.”

Officials also explained that the new laws also do not allow for odor of marijuana or alcohol to be a reason for police to initiate a stop of a young person under 21 years old or provide for probable cause to search the individual’s property or vehicle.

Police cannot also search a young person’s property or vehicle to determine a violation of the law if unconcealed possession of an alcoholic beverage or marijuana is observed in plain view.

Additionally, a young person under the age of 21 who possess marijuana or alcoholic beverages won’t be arrested, detained or other wise taken into custody, except to the extent required to issue a written warning.

“I think all police departments right now are working real hard to recalibrate with this new law,” Mayor Julie Blake said. “In a lot of ways, the recalibration is overdue and there is a disparity about how children in different communities of color or poorer communities or just a range in responding to marijuana specifically. But in Hopewell the police have been proactive and involved in schools. I think they are in a little bit of shock and awe.”

She added that the township has charged the police department with building relationships and having conversations with parents.

“They have been doing that part already. I think they are responding because it is doing the opposite for them. They like to be involved,” Blake said. “I do agree that conversations and communications with parents is the most important part. Punitive responses to issues of drug use do not seem to work in building relationships that help. I would like to see the police being able to have conversations with parents right away.”

The Township Committee is also starting conversations on how to respond to the new laws.

“The March 15 meeting, we are having two presentations, one by Police Director Bob Karmazin, who will talk about this part of the law, and township attorney Steve Goodell will talk about what other parts of the law we need to be addressing,” Blake said. “We are going to have series of meetings and if we are going to opt out of allowing marijuana sales it has to be done by ordinance by Aug. 21.”