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New Jersey moves to tighten laws on underage drinking, pot use

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(The Center Square) — New Jersey lawmakers are moving to tighten laws around young people who drink alcohol or use cannabis in public.

A proposal, which was narrowly approved along party lines by the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, would repeal a law that bars criminal penalties and parental notification for underage drinkers and pot smokers.

If approved, the measure would authorize police to issue $100 fines and summonses to people under 21 who consume alcohol in public, and a written notification to a parent or guardian will be required for a person under 18.

Before advancing the bill, lawmakers amended it to remove language that would have allowed police to stop and search underage youth they spot with alcoholic beverages.

The changes come as Jersey Shore mayors complain to state lawmakers about rowdy, underage parties and the inability of local police to crack down on teens getting high and drinking in public. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Ocean City police said they responded to more than 1,000 reports of disorderly conduct by minors.

In 2020, the Attorney General’s office issued a directive ordering police to avoid charging youths with crimes for underage drinking, suggesting approaches such as “curbside warnings” to deter them from breaking the law. The move was made in response to concerns about racial profiling of black youth.

A year later, New Jersey lawmakers approved recreational cannabis and prohibited the arrest or detaining of minors believed to be in possession of alcohol or pot.

Lawmakers on the committee were divided along party lines over advancing the proposal. Republicans, who comprise a minority on the panel, objected to the lack of notification to parents for underage drinking and that the bill didn’t include immunity provisions for police officers, among other concerns.

The proposed changes are also opposed by supporters of cannabis legalization and criminal justice advocates, who say it would defeat the purpose of lifting the state’s prohibition on the drug. Other critics say it would disproportionately impact minority communities, with black and brown youth often the target of stop-and-search policies.

The move has also been criticized by law enforcement groups who argue it would force police officers to contradict the AG’s 2020 directive. They also say the $100 fine would do little to deter public drinking and pot consumption by teens.

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