TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said New Jersey’s marijuana legalization laws will likely have unintended consequences, including a legitimate concern that police officers will stop enforcing alcohol and pot possession laws for fear of prosecution.

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At a Senate budget committee hearing Thursday, Grewal said he’s trying to head off such a result by developing training for police on how to abide by the law’s restrictions on how possession rules can be enforced when minors are involved. The law, however, is already in effect.

“It is a real issue, and it’s front and center right now because one of the unintended consequences of the legislation could be de-policing, which I don’t think any of us want in our communities,” Grewal said. “We want our officers to uphold public safety.”

Grewal said “one of the unintended consequences here is that the penalties are so severe” – a potential charge of deprivation of civil rights for things such as mistakenly getting consent to search someone who is under age 21 or arresting them for low-level possession.

“It’s a hefty charge, and it takes away – in the way it’s written now, you don’t even have to have that intent to act against somebody based on their race, gender, so on and so forth,” Grewal said.

“The law didn’t give us time to build out the training. It’s effective immediately,” he said. “It’s my hope that once we build out the training on what the new search and seizure rules are, what the rules are for those under 21, that law enforcement will be more confident in addressing situations and intervening.”

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said the law is a problem and needs to be changed so that police officers are only charged if they acted with intent to deprive a youth’s civil rights.

“If the officers are dissuaded from having interaction with minors in the first place, that’s a real problem,” O’Scanlon said.

“They’re terrified of this, to the point where – and I’ve spoke to attorneys who represent cops – the advice to cops is ignore it,” he said. “If someone asks you to intervene on a beach where there’s a group of teenagers smoking pot or now drinking alcohol, the advice is going to be, ‘Sir, you need to move,’ rather than the cop having any interaction with the children, the underage kids using.”

O’Scanlon said he appreciates that Grewal is trying to develop training but said that’s “going at it the wrong way.”

“That’s not your fault. It’s the Legislature’s fault because we haven’t taken action to fix this. And in fact, we took proactive action to create the problem,” O’Scanlon said.

“Too often, we do things in the New Jersey State Legislature where we make laws that we know are flawed, and we wait until someone’s life is ruined before we go back and fix it,” he said. “That really worries me for our cops – and look, also our kids, where they’re going to be a number of interactions that would have happened otherwise that won’t happen now that could have turned a kid’s life around. And we won’t know that. There’s no way to know that.”

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Legalization of adult-use marijuana was approved by two-thirds of New Jersey in a November referendum, but it took state officials months to get the enabling legislation in place.

The Legislature passed a bill in December, but Gov. Phil Murphy delayed signing it because it didn’t include any penalties for use by youths. A companion bill was passed in February and signed along with the original two bills – but set off controversy because it prevented parents and guardians from being informed the first time their child was caught by police with alcohol or pot. A law changing that provision was passed in March.

“We had the marijuana legalization legislation. Then we had the cleanup legislation. Then we had the cleanup of the cleanup legislation,” O’Scanlon said. “And already I think we’re working on cleanup of the cleanup of the cleanup.”

“We constantly are fixing and making corrections to a bill that we haven’t even started legalizing it and sold any legal marijuana yet,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

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