Can NJ cops smoke weed now that it’s legal here? It is complicated.

The sale of recreational marijuana began just over a week ago in New Jersey and already officials are facing issues, including whether law enforcement officers and other essential employees should be allowed to smoke or use weed in their free time.

The confusion began two weeks ago when the state’s top law enforcement official warned local police chiefs they could face prosecution for punishing cops for marijuana use. outside of working hours under current state law.

In a memo sent April 13, Acting State Attorney General Matthew Platkin reminded police chiefs and directors of the law’s details on cannabis regulation, enforcement assistance, and enforcement. market modernization, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law. Departments “cannot take any adverse action against officers because they do or do not use cannabis while off duty,” he wrote. Murphy signed the law after voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2020 allowing the regulated sale of cannabis products to people 21 and older.

But the state police chiefs association and some major city mayors have balked, arguing there should be an exemption for law enforcement officers, particularly because there is no reliable way to test if someone is under the influence of marijuana at work.

“The water is pretty murky and we don’t want anyone to be the test case,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policeman’s Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union.

Colligan said he advises his members not to participate until the legal issues are resolved.

In response, some state leaders are scrambling to figure out what to do next, as the law does not address cannabis use issues and labor issues.

“It’s a lot more complicated than any of us imagined when we put this proposal forward,” Senator Troy Singleton, the Senate Majority Whip, said in an interview, acknowledging that lawmakers did not consider exceptions for certain professions when they passed the law.

The crux of the matter is twofold: New Jersey has legalized cannabis, downgrading it from a banned substance to something you can buy at a dispensary. Yet it’s still a controlled Schedule 1 hazardous substance under federal law, which could make it especially risky for New Jersey cops seeking a firearms license under the rules. federal laws that prohibit users of such substances from having access to firearms.

Second, a breathalyzer can tell if you’ve had alcohol recently, but the best tests available for marijuana can only determine if you’ve indulged in the past two weeks, they can’t determine if you’re stoned at the time of testing. .

This means departments have no reliable way of knowing if officers are high on the job or if they test positive because they used cannabis more than 24 hours ago or even a few days ago.

The problem is not unique to law enforcement. Experts and the public who spoke to NJ Advance Media cited a host of other jobs that could be affected by the uncertainty in the law, including airline pilots, heavy machinery operators and firefighters.

Imagine what would happen “if you were going to have a medical procedure and you didn’t know if your surgeon was smoking two hours or two weeks ago,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said.

“You don’t have those same kinds of tests, which is basically the problem, and why it’s a different standard of alcohol when it comes to certain professions,” Fulop said.

This led Fulop to announce on April 20 that officers in his department could be disciplined or fired for using marijuana. A directive from the city’s director of public safety, James Shea, said federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives guidelines were explicit that marijuana users cannot legally get a firearms license.

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Singleton, the Senate Majority Whip, told NJ Advance Media that it’s important that agencies overseeing people in essential jobs are able to apply whatever internal standards they have to ensure that people are not drunk at work.

“Every agency has work rules, especially those for emergency services, as to what condition they should present themselves in when they show up for work,” he said.

Singleton and his fellow Democrats wrote a letter to Platkin asking for clarification after sending his warning note to police chiefs.

Platkin responded with his own letter, a copy of which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, saying that because of the way the Legislature drafted the law, banning off-work marijuana use for any employee was “an question for the courts to decide.”

The acting attorney general also said state lawmakers could address the issue.

“I urge you to consider, in your role as lawmakers, whether to change the law to clearly allow law enforcement to prohibit the off-duty use of regulated cannabis by those we rely on for our safety. and whom we entrust the use of firearms,” Platkin wrote.

State Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, said he plans to introduce a bill that would prevent New Jersey police officers from using off-duty weed or at least to explore the question.

“I hope to get some good dialogue,” Greenwald told NJ Advance Media. “The more we talk about it, the better off we’re going to be.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said “we should probably have a hearing” on the measure.

State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, also called for a ban.

“If the very people who enforce our laws in New Jersey are concerned about the many legal ramifications of their members’ recreational use of pot, that should give us pause,” Testa said. “Federal law prohibits a marijuana user from owning a firearm. This is something proponents of legalization probably never considered.

Fulop said the city has already addressed this issue regarding employees who have prescriptions for medical marijuana, which has been legal in New Jersey for years. This is a problem that is not limited to the police.

“If they use heavy machinery and they have a medical marijuana license, we try to move them into a position where they don’t use heavy machinery,” the mayor said. “Similarly, if a police officer has a problem, we would likely change their duty and responsibility within the police department.”

But the law remains murky, even in states that have legalized weed. Experts and lawyers in Massachusetts, which legalized marijuana in 2016, said the issue of police officers using cannabis remains an open question. Other states, like Colorado, have taken it piecemeal. In Colorado Springs, for example, cops are banned from using cannabis.

In a statement Friday, Platkin insisted he was simply following the law, saying his April 13 memo “in no way goes beyond the plain text of the law as written or the regulations. that the Cannabis Regulatory Commission has published to date, nor does it reflect a political position that I have taken?

“As New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer, public safety is my top priority,” Platkin said. “To be clear, I share the concerns expressed by some elected officials, legislators and others regarding the off-duty use of legal cannabis by police officers.”

Platkin said he would “welcome conversations about how best to protect public safety” but that “local government efforts to subject officers to additional requirements in the interim, however, may present rights issues. work which we believe will be transacted between such Governments and Agents in the proper course.

Gov. Phil Murphy said he’s open to legislation banning officers from consuming weed outside of work hours, but he also stuck to Platkin’s memo in the meantime, saying he “describes the law fairly accurately”.

Still, State Senate Speaker 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, I don’t want to start treating people individually differently about what they do in their free time,” said Scutari, D-Union.

“Then we will tell you that you cannot watch a particular program on Sundays before working. Then we are going to tell you that you cannot drink alcohol,” he added. “There are a lot of different personal behaviors that I don’t think the state should interfere with.”

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SP Sullivan can be attached to [email protected].

Brent Johnson can be attached to [email protected]. Follow him on @johnsb01.

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