Cannabis controversy: law enforcement rights up in smoke

Recreational marijuana use in New Jersey is now the law of the land. This is a process that has taken years from idea to implementation, including a campaign promise from then-candidate Phil Murphy in 2017 and culminating in a referendum to legalize marijuana that passed with approximately 70 percent of voters supporting it in 2020.

A Cannabis Regulatory Commission was set up and towns across the state were even granted the ability to opt out of allowing cannabis dispensaries and other businesses in their neighborhoods. Finally, after months of regulatory discussion and considerable back and forth, the first recreational marijuana sales moved forward in New Jersey this past April.

Of course, what came next involved public controversy around the legal, recreational use of marijuana by law enforcement officers. Ahead of those first recreational marijuana sales, the New Jersey attorney general released a memo clarifying that the new recreational marijuana laws allow members of law enforcement to use marijuana while not on duty. The memo went on to advise that law enforcement agencies, “may not take any adverse action against any officers because they do or do not use cannabis off duty.”

To be clear, I am not using my time this issue to advocate one way or the other as it relates to a law enforcement officer’s personal choice about the use of legal, recreational marijuana. However, I am amazed that not only were the most basic of issues not discussed and resolved regarding the impact on law enforcement, but, in fact, what came next was a rush to take away our members’ constitutional rights.

Over the time it took to pass marijuana legalization and establish a regulatory structure to offer adult use of marijuana, it is almost unbelievable that no one took time to process the impact on law enforcement. This includes the impact of discarding marijuana investigations that led to much more serious crimes being uncovered, the impact of an officer testifying in federal court where marijuana use is still a crime, the funding and training required to detect impairment and, most overtly, the impact from the use of marijuana among law enforcement officers.

The attorney general’s memo immediately created controversy in the state legislature and amongst some mayors, with some cities banning the use of recreational marijuana by members of law enforcement. Additionally, a handful of assembly and senate members decided to draft legislation that will carve out law enforcement from those allowed to use recreational marijuana. One bill from Assemblyman Lou Greenwald would allow for penalizing law enforcement for marijuana use while conducting random drug testing for marijuana and also rejecting applicants based on lawful marijuana use.

The legislation directly and solely targets law enforcement. Again, while I am not here to advocate for or against any individual’s recreational use, it is important to ask why law enforcement officers always seem to be an easy target for politicians looking for a quick headline. As members of law enforcement, we all understand the awesome responsibility that comes along with our gun, our badge and our oath. And that responsibility is not a one-time choice – it is the constant in each of our daily lives.

But what about other responsible, influential and powerful groups? Mayors and legislators have seemingly come to see law enforcement as “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to public decrees. The use of legal recreational marijuana as simply the latest example.

Today, it is a question of the impact on a member of law enforcement’s judgment after using legal recreational marijuana. But, somehow, our political leaders have no concern over an individual operating heavy machinery, the person teaching our children, the surgeon operating on our loved ones or even legislators creating laws that will impact us all?

The truth is that this issue divides the law enforcement community. Many of our colleagues believe legal recreational marijuana should not be an option in the law enforcement community, but that does not mean that we need our profession to be singled out and regulated above all others. It is beyond reason to think none of these issues, as they relate to law enforcement and any other number of professions, were discussed in the months and years the concept of legalizing marijuana worked its way through the legislature. Yet, we now somehow find our Constitutional rights being casually bandied about for headlines.

I expect this will be an ongoing issue, one that many community members will feel strongly about. My only hope is that we remain united in protecting our rights and standing against the need for legislation that singles out us amongst any and all other professions. That would seem to be something with which we can all agree.

Lastly, we send our thoughts and prayers to the three officers from the Union County Sheriff’s Office, the Hamilton Police Department and the Burlington Township Police Department who took their own lives during the past month. This is a stark reminder that we all need to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper. If you see any signs that a colleague might be having trouble, please reach out to them to our peer support team to help. This is our duty.