New Jersey’s recreational marijuana sales began just over a week ago. Public officials are already facing questions, including whether or not law enforcement officers and other critical employees should be allowed smoke or use marijuana on their own.
The confusion started two weeks ago when the state’s top law enforcement official warned local police chiefs that they could face lawsuits for punishing cops for off-duty marijuana use under the current state law.
Matthew Platkin, acting state attorney general, reminded the police chiefs and directors in a memo dated April 13 about the details and the Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act Gov. Phil Murphy was elected to the legislature. Departments “may not take any adverse action against any officers because they do or do not use cannabis off duty,”He wrote. Murphy signed the law following the approval of a constitutional amendment by voters in November 2020 that allowed the regulation of cannabis products for people 21 years and older.
But the state’s association of police chiefs and some big-city mayors balked, arguing there should be an exemption for law enforcement officers, especially because there is no reliable way to test if someone is under the influence of marijuana on the job.
“The water is pretty murky and we don’t want anybody to be the test case,” said Patrick Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State Policeman’s Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union.
Colligan said he’s advising his members to hold off on partaking until the legal issues are sorted.
Some state leaders are now scrambling for ideas as the law does little to address issues such as cannabis use and work.
“It’s far more complicated than any of us envisioned when we brought this proposal,” state Sen. Troy Singleton, Senate majority whip, stated in an interview that he acknowledged that lawmakers didn’t consider exceptions for certain professions as they passed the law.
The crux of this issue is that New Jersey has legalized marijuana, reducing it from a prohibited substance into something you can buy in a dispensary. Yet it’s still a schedule 1 controlled dangerous substance under federal law, which could make it especially dicey for New Jersey cops seeking a firearms license under federal rules that disallow users of such substances from having access to guns.
Secondly, a breathalyzer test can tell whether you’ve recently imbibed alcohol, but the best available tests for marijuana can only determine whether you’ve indulged in the past two weeks, they cannot determine if you are high right at the time of the test.
This means that the department cannot tell if officers have been high while on duty or if they are testing positive for cannabis after using it more than 24hrs ago or just a few hours ago.
The problem isn’t just limited to law enforcement. NJ Advance Media spoke with experts as well as the public and mentioned a number of other jobs that could be affected, including those of firefighters, heavy machine operators, and pilots.
Imagine what it would look like “if you were going in for a medical procedure, and you didn’t know if your surgeon was smoking two hours ago or two weeks ago,”Steve Fulop, Jersey City Mayor
“You don’t have those same types of tests, which is what the problem essentially is, and why it’s a different standard than alcohol with regards to certain professions,”Fulop said.
Fulop announced on April 20 that his department’s police officers could be disciplined or terminated for using marijuana. A directive from the city’s public safety director, James Shea, said that guidelines from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were explicit that marijuana users can’t legally obtain firearms permits.
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Singleton, the Senate majority whip, told NJ Advance Media it’s important that agencies overseeing people with essential jobs be able to enforce whatever internal standards they have to make sure people aren’t inebriated on the job.
“Every agency has work rules, especially those in emergency services, as to the condition they have to present themselves in when they show up for work,”He said.
Singleton and his Democratic colleagues wrote a letter to Platkin in search of clarity after he had sent his warning note to the police chiefs.
Platkin replied with his own letter. NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the letter. He stated that the Legislature had written the law prohibiting any employee from using marijuana off-the-job. “a question for the courts to decide.”
The acting attorney General also stated that state legislators could address the problem.
“I would urge you to consider, in your role as legislators, whether to amend the law to clearly allow law enforcement agencies to proscribe the off-duty use of regulated cannabis by those upon whom we rely to keep us safe and to whom we entrust the use of firearms,”Platkin wrote.
Lou Greenwald, D.Camden, is the State Assembly Majority Leader. He plans to introduce a bill which would prohibit police officers in New Jersey using marijuana off-duty, or at least to investigate the issue.
“I’m hoping to get a good dialogue going,”NJ Advance Media spoke with Greenwald. “The more we talk about this, the better we’re going to be.”
Craig Coughlin D-Middlesex Assembly Speaker, said “we should probably have a hearing”The measure.
State Senator Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) has also called for a ban.
“If the very people who enforce our laws in New Jersey are concerned about the many legal ramifications for recreational pot use by their members, it should give us all pause,”Testa said. “Federal law precludes a user of marijuana from owning a gun. That is something that the legalization proponents likely never considered.”
Fulop stated that the city has dealt with this issue in regards to employees who were prescribed medical marijuana. This has been legal in New Jersey since years. It’s an issue that isn’t limited to police.
“If they’re operating heavy machinery and they have medical marijuana license, we try to move them into a position where they’re not operating heavy machinery,”The mayor said. “Likewise, if a police officer has an issue, we would likely change their duty and responsibility within the police department.”
The law is still murky even in states where marijuana has been legalized. Experts and advocates in Massachusetts, where marijuana was legalized in 2016, say that the question of police officers using cannabis is still open to debate. Other states, including Colorado, have dealt with it in a fragmented manner. In Colorado Springs, For exampleCops are forbidden from using cannabis.
Friday’s statement from Platkin said he was just following the law. He stated that his April 13 memo had been misinterpreted. “does not in any way go beyond the plain text of the statute as written or the regulations that the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has issued to date, nor does it reflect a policy position I have taken.”
“In my capacity as New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer, public safety is my top priority,”Platkin stated. “To be clear, I share the concerns being expressed by some elected officials, legislators, and others with regard to the off-duty use of legal cannabis by police officers.”
Platkin said he would ”welcome conversations on how best to protect public safety” but that “efforts by local governments to subject officers to additional requirements in the interim, however, may present employment law issues that we anticipate will be handled between those governments and officers in the appropriate course.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has said he’s open to legislation to prohibit officers from using weed off-duty, but he also stood by Platkin’s memo in the meantime, saying it “describes the law quite faithfully.”
Still, state Senate President Nicholas Scutari, one of the architects of New Jersey’s legalization effort, said last week that such a ban could prove a slippery slope.
“At this point in time, I don’t want to start treating people individually differently on what they do on their own time,” Scutari, D-Union, said.
“Then we’re going to tell you that you can’t watch a particular program on Sunday before you work. Then we’re going to tell you that you can’t drink alcohol,”He concluded. “There’s a lot of different personal behaviors that I don’t think the state should be interfering with.”
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S.P. Sullivan may be reached at [email protected]