On February 22, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy signed three bills changing the legal status of marijuana. These laws, which went into immediate effect, create a two-tier framework:
- Regulated cannabis. When the substance is bought, sold, and used under certain conditions, it is treated as “regulated cannabis” and fully legal in New Jersey. As a practical matter, however, regulated cannabis will not be available in the State for several months until a new government body, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, issues rules governing its use.
- Marijuana and hashish. All forms of the substance that are not regulated cannabis or medical cannabis are treated as “marijuana” or “hashish.” Under the new laws, marijuana and hashish are still defined as “controlled dangerous substances” under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-2 but are largely decriminalized for non-distribution offenses. The laws eliminate existing prohibitions and create new, more lenient penalties for possession and distribution that remain tiered based on weight.
Shortly after enactment, Attorney General Grewal issued two documents to law enforcement describing the new requirements and providing enforcement guidance:
- AG Directive 2021-1: Directive Governing Dismissals of Certain Pending Marijuana Charges (Feb. 22, 2021). This directive instructs state, county, and municipal prosecutors to dismiss charges pending as of February 22, 2021 for any marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under state law.
- Interim Guidance Regarding Marijuana Decriminalization (Feb. 22, 2021). This document provides guidance to law enforcement officers regarding new enforcement requirements pursuant to the marijuana decriminalization law.
February 2021 Marijuana Laws
The three laws signed by Governor Murphy on February 22 can be found here:
- Cannabis legalization (P.L.2021, c.16). Titled as the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement, Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act, this law legalizes regulatory cannabis. (A21)
- Marijuana decriminalization (P.L.2021, c.19). This law decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana and hashish and establishes new, more lenient penalties for the distribution of these substances. (A1897)
- Other clarifying provisions (P.L.2021, c.25). This law clarifies certain provisions regarding marijuana and cannabis use and possession penalties for individuals younger than 21 years old. (S3454)
Frequently Asked Questions
The Attorney General’s Office has received various questions from law enforcement agencies following the enactment of February 22 laws. Below is a compilation of frequently asked questions, which will be updated in the coming weeks and months.
Please note that these questions are designed to assist law enforcement agencies and officers. The Attorney General’s Office is unable to provide legal advice to private citizens.
- What should an officer do if they smell marijuana coming from a vehicle during a motor vehicle stop?
First, the officer should take the traditional investigative steps to determine if there is probable cause to believe that the driver is operating the vehicle while under the influence, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. If so, the driver may be arrested and the vehicle may be searched. If the driver is not found to be under the influence, the new laws are clear that the odor of marijuana, either burned or raw, by itself does not establish reasonable suspicion to justify a continued stop, nor probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle or the person, in a marijuana possession case or even in a low-level (fourth-degree) possession with intent to distribute marijuana case. As a result, the vehicle and occupants must be released once the initial reason for the stop has been addressed.
- May an officer initiate or continue a pedestrian stop of an individual based on the officer detecting the odor of marijuana?
No, the new laws are clear that the odor of marijuana, either burned or raw, by itself does not establish reasonable suspicion to justify or continue a pedestrian stop. In addition, the odor of marijuana by itself does not establish probable cause to conduct a search in a marijuana possession case or even a low-level (fourth-degree) possession with intent to distribute marijuana case. The age of the person being stopped is irrelevant in these situations.
- What happens when a law enforcement officer encounters an individual under the age of 21 who is in possession of marijuana, hashish, cannabis, or alcohol?
Law enforcement officers must be cautious when they encounter an individual under the age of 21 who is in possession of marijuana, hashish, cannabis, or alcohol. The officer can seize the marijuana, hashish, cannabis, and alcohol and issue the appropriate written warning. However, the new law also sets forth the following prohibitions on officers when investigating possession or consumption of marijuana, hashish, cannabis, or alcohol by an underage individual to determine a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-15:
- Officers may not request consent from an individual who is under the age of 21;
- Officers may not use odor of marijuana to stop an individual who is under the age of 21 or to search the individual’s personal property or vehicle;
- Officers who observe marijuana in plain view will not be able to search the individual or the individual’s personal property or vehicle.
- Officers may not arrest, detain, or otherwise take an individual under the age of 21 into custody for a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-15 except to the extent required to issue a written warning or provide notice of a violation to a parent/guardian.
- Does the new law alter the use of my body worn camera (BWC) in any way?
The law requires that whenever an officer is equipped with a BWC, the BWC must be activated when responding to or handling a call involving a violation or suspected violation of the amended N.J.S.A. 2C:33-15, which addresses the underage possession or consumption of alcohol, marijuana, hashish, or cannabis. The BWC may not be deactivated for any reason throughout the entire encounter. Underage refers to people under the age of 21.
- How does decriminalization and legalization change fingerprinting?
Marijuana is still by definition pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-2 a “controlled dangerous substance,” and, therefore, appropriately charged violations involving marijuana or hashish are still subject to fingerprint compliance under N.J.S.A. 53:1-18.1. However, when law enforcement officers encounter an individual who has violated N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(12)(b) (distribution/possession with intent to distribute 1 ounce or less) or N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(3)(b) (possession of more than 6 ounces), the officer is prohibited under the law from arresting, detaining, or otherwise bringing that individual into the station, which means the officer will be unable to fingerprint the violator at the time of the incident. Therefore, those individuals must be fingerprinted at their first court appearance.
Individuals under the age of 21 who are in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-15(a)(1) are precluded from being fingerprinted under the new law.