Do NJ Cops Know Medical Marijuana Guidelines? Not Really, Says An Advocate On A Mission

Photo Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran

Edward “Lefty” Grimes was in pain.

It had been an hour since he’d arrived at the Clifton police station with what should have been a straightforward question: Where could he legally smoke his medical marijuana? One officer on duty knew, but he was out on an assignment and couldn’t be reached.

Meanwhile, Grimes – who suffers from back pain after a fall at work forced him to undergo multiple spine surgeries – was starting to hurt. He debated: Should he light up, and risk getting arrested? Or should he wait for the officer to return?

He decided to wait. Finally, more than an hour after Grimes first arrived, Lt. Favio Toyas returned. You can smoke outside by the ashtrays, he told Grimes after checking his patient identification card, apologizing for the delay.

“They don’t run into this every day,” Toyas said of his fellow officers.

But for Grimes, a self-styled medical marijuana advocate from East Hanover, it’s a scene he knows all too well.

In the past four years, Grimes has visited more than 70 police departments across the state in an effort to educate officers about the guidelines for enforcing New Jersey’s medical marijuana law. In encounters that he films and later posts to YouTube, police are generally civil but often do not know the guidelines or – in some cases – that medical cannabis is even legal in New Jersey.

“We’re here to educate police so patients don’t get arrested,” said Grimes. “Unless an officer takes it upon himself to do the research, they don’t know the law.”

This is particularly concerning now, says advocates, because Gov. Phil Murphy and other state leaders are pushing to not only legalize recreational marijuana but also patients’ access to New Jersey’s existing medical marijuana program.

Murphy has ordered a review of the program, including how dispensary licenses are obtained, the allowable medical conditions and the various ways that medical marijuana can be ingested.

“Right now there are lines at dispensaries and they can’t fulfill our needs,” Grimes said. “If it’s going to be legal, we need to worry about cannabis patients’ rights first.”

The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey has also called on the state to approve an additional 43 ailments for which patients can be treated with marijuana.

About 15,000 people are eligible to receive medical marijuana in New Jersey – far lower, says Murphy, than the number of patients in states like Michigan, which has a comparable population. If the coalition’s list, which is under review, is approved, that number would grow, says executive director Ken Wolski.

“With a planned expansion, now is the time to look at training for police,” said Wolski. “Police should be made aware of the rights of patients in New Jersey.”

‘Ignorance is no excuse’

Grimes, 50, is an unlikely advocate. Though he sometimes wears suits and ties, he has also been known to sport T-shirts proclaiming, “Don’t shoot me, I’m white,” or “I’m recording you.” Around his neck hangs a camera, which he tucks beneath his long, wavy hair. He’s also known to have a cane in his left hand, which is how he got the nickname Lefty.

Grimes says he was inspired to act after attending a town hall hosted by then-Gov. Chris Christie.

Medical marijuana patients in New Jersey can smoke anywhere tobacco can be smoked in public.

But at the town hall, Grimes – who needs to medicate every three hours for his back pain – said he asked a State Police trooper where he could legally smoke cannabis. Rather than direct him to an appropriate location, Grimes said the officer threatened to arrest him if he lit up.

This encounter, says Grimes, occurred in 2014 – four years after medical marijuana was legalized in New Jersey and two years after the state Attorney General’s Office issued guidelines to police outlining how they should enforce the state’s program.

“After that we started to go to police departments to see if they all thought the same,” Grimes said.

The result has been what Grimes calls the “Ignorance is No Excuse Tour,” a series of videos posted to YouTube that show him and other patients approaching police around the state. Often, he will walk up to a desk officer, identify himself as a medical marijuana patient and ask where can legally smoke pot to medicate.

Reactions vary, from officers initially looking baffled to offering him – as happened in Mahwah – space in the station’s lobby to roll a joint. In a couple of instances, he says, he has been threatened with arrest or blatantly ignored.

While police have been quicker to respond to him since he began his effort, he says on average he still waits about 20 minutes for an officer to answer him.

The problem, says advocates, is that while some officers may have been trained in the state’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, or CUMMA, enforcement guidelines, there is no requirement that they receive this instruction.

They could not provide specific figures, but Grimes and other advocates say they are aware of medical marijuana patients who have been arrested by officers who were not familiar with the law.

Most of the time, the charges are dropped, unless the patient is found to be in possession of more marijuana than is allowed under state law or was smoking in an unauthorized location, according to the group Americans for Safe Access.

The Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey has called for training for all state, county and local law enforcement officers.

The state and Bergen County Policemen’s Benevolent Associations did not return requests for comment.

But a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office dismissed calls for police training.

“The Office of the Attorney General is not aware of concerns pertaining to the knowledge or enforcement of these guidelines that would necessitate training for law enforcement officers at this time,” said Sharon Lauchaire, the office’s acting communications director.

Marijuana bans

As he continues to advocate for training, a new front in Grimes’ fight has emerged in recent months.

The debate over legalizing recreational marijuana has prompted some municipal officials to pre-emptively introduce or adopt bans on marijuana retail sales.

The Hasbrouck Heights and Garfield councils adopted bans in February, while Ramsey’s council chose instead to limit sales to certain areas of town. Hawthorne is expected to vote on a ban on March 21.

These new restrictions have led Grimes to attend council meetings, where he has implored local officials to consider the patients he says will be affected by these bans.

“There are sick people in town that you don’t see,” he recently told the Garfield City Council. “They need dispensaries in town. Why would you want sick people to jump through more hoops?”

Currently there are five medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, with a sixth on the way.

Garfield’s ban doesn’t specifically address medical marijuana, but the city’s mayor disagrees that a dispensary should be allowed. If patients need cannabis to treat their ailments, they can go to another town to buy it, he argues.

“I don’t want to bring drugs into the heart of Garfield,” Mayor Richard Rigoglioso said.

But Grimes argues cannabis can help patients.

Christian Velasquez, 25, of Dover, who joined Grimes when he recently visited the Clifton police department, credits the drug with allowing him to live a “normal and productive life.”

With the help of marijuana, Valasquez, who also suffers from a back injury, said he was able to complete school and now goes to work every day.

Grimes himself has benefited from cannabis.

For 10 years, he says, he used opioids to treat his pain. It wasn’t until he started using marijuana that he was able to wean himself off the medications, he said.

“I was in incredible pain and it got me off drugs,” Grimes said. “Marijuana helps a lot of people get off pharmaceuticals.”

The recent backlash to legalization, then, has him concerned.

“Towns are on a banning spree right now,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much ignorance in my life.”