Legislation Introduced to Crack Down on Underage Alcohol, Marijuana Use

Senator Declan O’Scanlon introduced legislation that would reinstate penalties for underage possession and consumption of alcohol and cannabis.

“When the people of New Jersey voted to legalize cannabis in 2020, it was with the condition that it would remain illegal for anyone under 21 years of age. Despite this clear directive from voters, when legislation was later enacted to formally legalize cannabis, which I opposed due to the bill’s rampant flaws, it basically eliminated any penalties for underage use or possession of not only cannabis, but alcohol as well. Since then, there has been a predictable rise in the illegal use of alcohol and cannabis by young people and a new fad of rowdy pop-up beach parties that is quickly getting out of control,” said O’Scanlon (R-13). “We must send a clear message that alcohol and cannabis are still illegal for underage consumption and those who violate the law will be held accountable. This bill would reinstate the penalties for underage drinking and cannabis use that, for many years, were effective in containing the problems we are seeing today.”

Currently, any person under the age of 21 who is caught consuming or in possession of alcohol or cannabis products will receive a written warning from law enforcement and, if the person is a minor, the minor’s parents will be notified of the violation. A person who commits a third offense, will receive a referral for community services, but there is no penalty for declining those services.

Additionally, the law prohibits law enforcement officers from searching underage individuals when the odor of alcohol or cannabis is detected, therefore concealing the alcohol or cannabis in a pocket or backpack until the officer leaves is all one must do to avoid confiscation. In stark contrast, an officer who violates the prohibition on searches will face a third-degree criminal charge and serious prison time.

Senator O’Scanlon’s bill, S-3973, amends existing law to revoke the ineffective written warning system and reestablish underage consumption and possession of alcohol and cannabis products as a disorderly person offense subject to a fine of no less than $500. It would also permit officers to conduct searches when appropriate without the threat of criminal prosecution.

Under the bill, the court may also once again require an offender to attend an educational or treatment program authorized by the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Human Services. This will make it easier for those who struggle with substance abuse issues to receive much needed help.

These penalties for underage alcohol use and possession were in place for many years prior to the legalization of cannabis. Removing them has clearly had a negative impact on the state in terms of both public safety and quality of life.

“When rowdy, intoxicated teens are permitted to engage in the lawlessness that we have seen in our shore towns, residents, tourists, and business owners suffer,” O’Scanlon added. “We need to shift our focus away from criminalizing routine police work, back towards holding young people accountable for the harm they cause by being inebriated out in the open or behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This bill would restore authority to the police to do their jobs while deterring young people from hurting themselves and the communities in which they congregate.”

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