Home>Feature>Gopal, Democrats introduce bill to notify parents of first underage marijuana offense

State Sen. Vin Gopal. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Gopal, Democrats introduce bill to notify parents of first underage marijuana offense

By Nikita Biryukov, March 04 2021 8:49 pm

Lawmakers in both chambers will introduce a bill allowing police officers to notify the parents of underage marijuana users on the first offense instead of the second.

“While New Jersey has made recreational Marijuana legal in the state of New Jersey, it is still illegal for minors to possess or consume it. If a minor is caught with these substances, we want their parents to know about it right away,” State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Neptune) and Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Freehold) said in a joint statement.

The measure, also sponsored by State Sens. Joe Lagana (D-Paramus) and Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham), follows a protracted fight over marijuana legalization that wore on for months after New Jersey voters overwhelmingly backed legalization at the polls.

Under bills Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last month, anyone under the age of 21 found in possession of marijuana would be subject to a system of graduated warnings.

On the first offense, underage users would receive a written warning. On the second, they’d get another warning, and law enforcement would notify their parent or guardian about the infraction. The third would see them referred to community programs.

The lack of tangible penalties on the first offense drew heavy criticism from Republicans, though a Democratic source told the New Jersey Globe it was only a minor political concern in suburban districts where drug policy could have caused a revolt in decades past.

State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford) on Monday said the law was a Democratic bid to “cut parents out of parenting.” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said he was drafting a bill to repeal the prohibition on parent notifications two days after the bill was signed in February.

The underage penalties came about after months of negotiations, as Democrats in the Senate scrambled for compromise as they raced to avoid a procedural deadline that could make legalization and decriminalization bills approved in December law without Murphy’s signature. More likely, they would have met with the governor’s veto pen.

The negotiations were so lengthy in part because of an unusually large number of parties at the table. The Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses went to the forefront, opposing harsher penalties for minors sought by the governor while attempting to find a middle ground with Murphy, who repeatedly said he would not sign a bill legalizing marijuana for children.

But those most forces appear to be in alignment on parental notifications.

“No, I’m not opposed to legislation going in to give parents notice and knowledge,” said State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), a legalization opponent who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

A member of his caucus, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Moorestown), was working on a similar bill.

“The parent should be the number one person monitoring and shaping the deportment of their children,” Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Moorestown) said. “And they should be viewed as the number one ally by government, schools and other agencies when it comes to monitoring and shaping the deportment of their children.”

That cleanup bill passed the Senate in a 23-12 vote that fell largely along party lines, but Conaway, the Assembly sponsor, said he’d discovered no opposition to the new bill in early discussions with legislators, adding that its passage would “be a bipartisan effort, I’m sure.”

State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Paterson), who chairs the Legislative Latino Caucus, did not comment specifically on the new bill, saying she was aware of it but had not yet seen a draft of the legislation, but she implied a favorable regard.

“That is what we’ve been trying to say: We need to take that punitive approach away from this,” Pou said. “Parental notification, we believe, we’re emphasizing that more so than having them learn of it only after an arrest, so I’m always supportive of the parental notification.”

It’s also unclear where Gov. Phil Murphy stands. A spokesman declined to comment when asked if the front office was aware of the bill and supportive of the same.

But it does have the backing of advocacy groups, including a local branch of the NAACP, and some of the state’s religious leaders, who worried the system enacted last month could strip parents of the chance to correct behavior.

“Even though marijuana has been legalized, you cannot take the parents right away to know if their child has been using marijuana or alcohol,”  Long Branch NAACP President Bill Dangler said.

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