NJ Legal Weed Changes On The Way?

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TRENTON – Less than a month after New Jersey legalized weed, the state is already considering a host of changes pressed for by different interests in the Garden State’s quickly expanding marijuana universe.

The changes include scrapping a provision barring police officers from contacting parents of minors caught with marijuana on a first offense. Police officers, joined by parents and elected officials, have argued it unfairly binds the hands of law enforcement and leaves parents in the dark.

Another change would give employers more flexibility in targeting workers believed to be consuming weed on the job, or are otherwise impaired. Discussions include creating a process whereby certain critical employers, such as police departments, can bar their workers altogether from using weed, officials told the USA TODAY Network New Jersey.

Still another notable revision — one on the radar of legal weed proponents for years — would open the door to home cultivators in a limited way. So-called “home grow” has long been a feature in other states where marijuana is legal.

Some of the revised rules have already been sent to lawmakers. The alterations hardly come as a surprise. Changes to major legislation, such as one creating a new legal industry, are not uncommon. Indeed, legislators had to pass a “cleanup” bill before Gov. Phil Murphy even signed the weed measures into law earlier this month.

In numerous public hearings since Election Day, legislative leaders said they expected to eventually pass additional laws to address unforeseen issues — or merely those put on the backburner— in the coming months and years.

“There’s no question we’ll be back in a year or two saying there was an unintended consequence. And we’ll fix that because we want this industry to flourish,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said in December.

Legislators have proposed or introduced numerous bills to change the weed laws largely boiling down to three categories:

Minors and marijuana
The legal weed laws were delayed for over six weeks as legislators and Murphy’s office negotiated the penalties for underage marijuana users. There is a growing consensus they didn’t get it all right.

A compromise agreed to treats both underage alcohol and marijuana use and possession as the same offense, but allows for police to only issue written warnings. Under the newly enacted laws, police can notify the parent or guardian of an offender under 18 years old — but only on the second and subsequent offense.

Before the bills were signed, police unions and elected officials began pushing for changes, calling for parental notification on a child’s first warning for marijuana or alcohol use. They continued to raise a stink after the measures were enacted.

“I don’t think anybody wants a 14-year-old running around smoking marijuana and drinking. I don’t think that was the intent of the legislation and for us to not be able to tell their parents when we find that out is just lunacy,” Long Branch Police Chief Jason Roebuck said.

Now, that concept has traction. Murphy earlier this month said he supported such a move, calling it a “step in the right direction.” On Wednesday, the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee advanced a bill that would do just that.

“The Legislature, not infrequently, has to make adjustments to legislation it has passed for any number of reasons,” Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, said during the committee hearing. “In this case, it’s to better align the bill with the sensibilities of the people of New Jersey with respect to the question of parental control and authority over their children.”

Drug testing and employer rights
Under the current legal weed laws, a failed drug test alone isn’t enough to take action against an employee. Instead, the employer is required to have a licensed Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert, or WIRE, either on staff or through a vendor, who would examine the employee to determine they’re actually intoxicated in the workplace.

Under a bill introduced by Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, employers would “remain free to use scientifically reliable testing services and to exercise its own judgment in making a good faith suspicion determination.”

Using an impairment expert would be optional.

But Sarlo’s bill specifically states that an employer can’t take any action which “has the effect of prohibiting an employee using cannabis items during non-work hours.”

Without a WIRE, employers are more likely to rely on their actual observations of the employee at the workplace during the incident, employment law attorney Michael Riccobono said.

“There’s no requirement under New Jersey law that you have to have a failed drug test result in order to take adverse action against an employee,” said Riccobono, with the Ogletree Deakins law firm in Morristown. “Rather than rely on the results of the drug test, employers will probably rely on their observations of the employee at the time in question.”

Sarlo’s bill makes specific exceptions for certain job categories for which even off-the-clock marijuana use is prohibited — notably public utility employees, police officers with a firearm and employees in the aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit and pipeline industries.

A 1991 law required pre-employment, post-incident and random drug testing for “safety-sensitive” transportation employees.

The bill also allows employers to apply to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission for the right to bar their employees from off-hours marijuana use if the workplace is a “critical infrastructure facility or a construction site has an exceptionally high risk of potential harm to other employees or to public safety if the employee were to be impaired through the use of cannabis.”

“There are state and federal rules for regulated industries and professions that need to be brought into conformance with marijuana legalization so that workers and others aren’t put at risk,” Sarlo said.

The bill also directs the CRC to work with the New Jersey State Police to develop the standards for Workplace Impairment Recognition Experts.

Home grow
While the possession, use and even the distribution of small amounts of marijuana were legalized last month, it’s still illegal to grow cannabis plants without a license.

Under current law, growing just one cannabis plant is a third-degree crime, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Growing more than 10 plants is a second-degree offense, with a maximum 10-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine.

There has been increasing momentum behind home grow in recent months. Sens. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, and Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, sponsored a bill that would allow medical marijuana patients to grow up to four cannabis plants at home without penalty.

And shortly before his death, Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Morris, sponsored a bill that would have allowed anyone to grow up to six cannabis plants.

The state’s medical marijuana program has been plagued for years by supply and demand issues as the number of patients has grown to over 100,000 while the number of dispensaries has stalled at just 14.

“Because the product has to be paid for entirely out of pocket it is rarely a feasible long term option for low income patients,” Singleton said in a statement upon introducing the bill.

Singleton’s bill, S3420, is yet to receive a committee hearing.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Globe reported that Sweeney and marijuana legalization sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, were working on a bill to lower the penalties for growing cannabis and could consider wider home grow after traveling to other legal weed states.

Scutari did not return a call seeking comment.

Of the 13 states with legal weed, New Jersey is the only one that doesn’t at least allow its medical marijuana patients to grow cannabis at home.

New Jersey and Washington are the only states that don’t allow some level of home grow for its recreational marijuana users.