New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Tuesday that the state will cease arrests for minor marijuana possession and drop any pending cases immediately. The decision comes one day after the state formally legalized adult-use cannabis and delivered on the referendum mandate voters made in November.
The decision to drop the cases reverses a prior advisement asking local prosecutors to pause on pending cases until at least April. Since the start of November, over 6,000 arrests have been made for minor marijuana possession across the state.
Grewal’s announcement ends all pending charges against those arrested for possessing marijuana or hashish, selling less than an ounce, possessing paraphernalia, possession in a vehicle, being under the influence, or refusing to dispose. Any previous convictions will also be vacated. While the regulated marijuana marketplace is being created by legislators, it is illegal to sell more than an ounce, but buyers cannot be arrested nor can anyone carrying less than six ounces of cannabis.
Those who have been charged with marijuana possession are encouraged to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer for assistance.
What are the New Recreational Marijuana Laws in New Jersey?
As part of the new laws, citizens are protected from searches of persons or vehicles based on just the smell of marijuana. However, driving under the influence (DUI) remains illegal. Underage possession of marijuana is also no longer an arrestable offense and will be replaced by civil warnings issued by officers. Any involved officer who does not follow new guidelines can be criminally charged for violating a minor’s rights.
The new laws create a variety of questions for regular citizens and anyone who was previously arrested on marijuana charges. With more laws and changes to existing policies expected, there may be more opportunities to expunge prior convictions or dismiss pending charges.
Can I Purchase Recreational Marijuana in the State?
Although the bill has successfully passed and is in effect, those in New Jersey cannot currently purchase recreational marijuana. The Cannabis Regulatory Commission now has to set up rules and regulations. According to Gov. Phil Murphy and experts, it may be six months to a year before dispensaries will be issued for recreational use.
It is important to note that the legal purchasing age is 21 years old. If one is not of legal age when purchasing recreational marijuana, they will be penalized. Penalties will be the following:
- First offense: A written warning will be issued with the first offense, and parents will not be notified.
- Second offense: This offense includes a written warning, information on drug treatment problems, and police must provide a copy of the second and first warning to those under 18 years old.
- Third offense: A written warning, a referral to a drug treatment program, and parents or guardians will be notified with a third offense.
Those who wish to grow marijuana in lieu of purchasing it are not encouraged to do so. Currently, home-grown marijuana is illegal in New Jersey and was left out of the new legislation.
What Ways can I be Charged with Drug Possession?
Law enforcement officers were not directly ordered to stop arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana during Grewal’s announcement. Some police officers may not abide by the new legislation and make unjust arrests. Each day, nearly 100 people are still being arrested in the state for marijuana possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New jersey. Violators who incur more serious marijuana drug charges may have their case dismissed at the discretion of the prosecutor. Decriminalization of recreational marijuana may be a lengthy process, and it is advised to retain a lawyer if one is faced with a drug charge.
A person can still be charged with drug possession in certain circumstances or because of other paraphernalia. A drug charge of any kind can lead to severe consequences. If one is arrested, they must be fingerprinted and then processed. There are four ways one can be charged:
- Summons: A summons will list the charge and a date of when to appear in court. This is the most common way to be charged with drug possession.
- Warrant: A warrant will inform the offender of the charge and order law enforcement to make an arrest.
- Indictment: This is issued by a grand jury. The jury will evaluate whether there was probable cause.
- Accusation: This is in lieu of an indictment and is meant to initiate the plea bargaining phase in the Superior Court. A person has a right to waive their right to an indictment in order to plead guilty to an accusation.
What are the Penalties for Drug Possession?
The type of penalty relies on the severity of the drug charge. The possible charges include the following:
Disorderly persons drug charge: In most cases, jail is not required if there is no prior record. It is a misdemeanor crime. Possession of drug paraphernalia is a common disorderly persons offense.
Fourth-degree drug charge: Penalties may include probation, felony charge, up to 18 months in prison or 364 days in county jail, and a possible $10,000 fine. Marijuana possession may lead to a fourth-degree drug charge in certain scenarios.
Third-degree drug charge: Possession of narcotics could lead to this charge. Penalties include three to five years in prison and fines up to $15,000.
Second-degree drug charge: Drug distribution may result in a second-degree drug charge, which is a serious crime in the state. Punishments include five to 10 years in prison and fines up to $150,000.
First-degree drug charge: This charge is the most serious in the state. Major drug distribution may result in a first-degree drug charge. A 10- to 20-year prison sentence and fines up to $200,000 are possible penalties.
Any drug charge should not be taken lightly; however, a seasoned lawyer might be able to lessen or get the criminal offense defense. A lawyer should be contacted right away after a drug possession accusation to start building a defense.
Potential Defenses for Drug Charges
Hiring a lawyer is an essential step after one is accused of drug possession. The defendant should always thoroughly discuss details of their case so that a lawyer can construct a strong defense. Defenses are case-specific, but common possible strategies lawyers use include the following:
- Lack of probable cause, such as no lawful reason to search a vehicle. It is important to reiterate that under the new legislation, a police officer cannot search a vehicle because they smell marijuana.
- Not informing the defendant of the right to refuse consent.
- The person did not have drugs on them.
- Exonerated by a co-defendant.
- Problems with lab testing.
- The police officer did not have a warrant or did not meet the exigency exception; there was no immediate danger.
It is recommended that first-time offender does not plead guilty to any charges, since they may be able to get them dismissed. A lawyer will examine the possible defenses and pick a strategy to pursue the courts and/or jury.
In some instances, a first-time offender may not be able to get their charge dismissed, but they may opt to enter a diversionary program. The Conditional Discharge Program and the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) program are the most common available options. A person with a disorderly persons offense may be able to do the Conditional Discharge Program, but certain requirements must be met, such as no prior criminal record. PTI is similar to the Conditional Discharge Program but for third-degree and fourth-degree crimes.
Completing either program will not lead to a conviction on a criminal record, but the original arrest will still be there. An expungement may be pursued after six months of completing a program. Each program has strict requirements and regulations, so it is wise to consult with a lawyer before agreeing to either one.
Freehold Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Help Those Charged with Marijuana Possession
If you have been charged with marijuana possession, the Freehold criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law are ready to assist you throughout the legal process to ensure your rights are protected. Call us at 732-308-0200 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.